Although Minnesota entered Big Ten play with a 12-1 record, their less than impressive non-conference schedule implied they would have to post some quality Big Ten wins in order to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. On Tuesday night, they let one potential victory slip from their grasp as the Gophers lost a late second half lead and eventually fell to Illinois 81-72 in double overtime.
The game didn't feel like a thriller the whole way through. With just 13 minutes left in the second half, Illinois led 48-35 and seemed prepared to put the game to rest, but a flurry of turnovers sparked a 10-0 Minnesota run that made the game much more interesting.
A Julian Welch three-pointer tied the score at 54 with six minutes left, and later Ralph Sampson III scored six points in four possessions to put the Gophers ahead 64-62 with 37 seconds remaining. With just 16 seconds left Welch was fouled by Illinois, but he missed the front end of the one-and-one to leave the door open. Illinois big man Meyers Leonard game crashing through said door with a drive to the hoop that led to a pair of free throw makes to tie the game.
Welch was blocked by Leonard on Minnesota's final attempt in regulation, and they never got a better chance to win the game. Brandon Paul's steal and dunk at the beginning of the second overtime led to Illinois dominating the final period and escaping with a victory.
For Illinois, Leonard posted 20 points, 11 rebounds and 5 blocks, while Paul registered 21 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists. Each star pitched in 5 of 21 Illini turnovers that helped keep Minnesota in the game. Leonard is the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week thanks to strong play versus Cornell and Missouri last week, and he appears to be his team's most valuable player right now.
The Gophers were paced by Sampson and Welch. Sampson put up 22 points and 9 rebounds with 2 blocks, while Welch had 15 points and 3 assists.
After all, its not as though that huge lead came from nowhere. For one, we saw the continued emergence of Joe Bertrand from his shell, and he made the most of it against tonight. Joe had a spurt of 9 points in about five minutes in the first half, and we saw the athleticism of a player that has what the other guards don't often show, an instinct to head for the basket and to create a shot.
Bertrand finished the game with 13 points, and a block in the second overtime that was just as valuable as any of his points. That is two straight games where he has been in double figures, where he was mostly an afterthought in every game leading up to this. The light has gone on and he looks comfortable with his game, and nothing is so cool as when this much hard work pays off.
Minnesota fans, on the other hand, are upset that they let a quality road win slip away.
This was so frustrating because we had a chance to win. Not the kind of "chance" where if we nail a late three we win or the kind of "chance" where if a call or two goes our way we win. This was one where we had ball in the hands of an 87.5% free throw shooter. I'm not pissed, just sad. Of course there were missed shots throughout the game, especially in the 1st half. There were some bad turnovers and defensive breakdowns. All of which were crucial to winning a close game. Would have been nice to have this win.
It wasn't all good news for Illinois on Tuesday. They learned that guard and Luther's brother, Crandall Head was going to transfer. This ESPN Chicago article suggests that Head may be leaving Illinois due to a disagreement in style of play. Apparently the Illinois offense is all about shooting and Head is more of a driver and tempo-pusher. It seems then that the young guard picked the entirely wrong conference to play in.
Nebraska was at home for their first every Big Ten basketball game, but they did little to impress their fans. The Huskers got off to a fast start thanks to Toney McCray's hot hand, but Wisconsin ripped off a 19-2 run after falling behind 10-5, and they never looked back.
The Badgers scored 64 points on the night, and they held Nebraska to a miserable 40 points on 31% shooting. Ryan Evans had a career-high 22 points to go with 6 rebounds while Jordan Taylor posted a modest 15 points and 5 assists.
McCray was the only bright spot for Nebraska. He finished with 16 points and 9 rebounds while big man Brandon Ubel added 8 points and 9 rebounds in a good job filling in for Jorge Brian Diaz.
UW’s best performance on defense came from sophomore guard Josh Gasser, who held senior guard, Nebraska’s leading scorer, to five points on 2-for-12 shooting. Spencer, who came into the game averaging 16.0 points, didn’t score his first point until there was 14 minutes, 52 seconds left in the game.
Tonight Northwestern visits Ohio State, Indiana puts its undefeated record to the test in East Lansing, and Iowa plays host to Purdue.