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Updated: February 20th, 2014 12:46am
Donnelly: Mathieu's off night comes at rough time for reeling Gophers

Donnelly: Mathieu's off night comes at rough time for reeling Gophers

by Pat Donnelly
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS - DeAndre Mathieu walked from the shower to his locker after the Gophers' gut-punch of a loss to Illinois on Wednesday. He knew his play was a big reason for the 62-49 defeat against the last-place team in the Big Ten.

He described his performance with a few choice words before settling into a frank and honest assessment of his evening.

"I stunk it up," Mathieu said. "I picked the wrong time to play my worst game of the season."

It's hard to argue with him. The junior point guard finished Wednesday night with three points on 1-of-5 shooting, with three assists and three turnovers. And the numbers don't fully illustrate the depth of his woes on the evening.

The Illini took a page from Nebraska's playbook and trapped Mathieu up top on ball screens. The Cornhuskers forced nine turnovers with that trick on Jan. 26. On Tuesday, it wasn't so much turnovers that hurt the Gophers but a complete inability to get into their offense in the half-court.

"We were slipping him," said head coach Rich Pitino, explaining that centers Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason were slipping out of the screens early to create space for an entry pass. "(Mathieu) was passive versus it. I think he was getting frustrated with it, certainly. We kept slipping it and telling him to attack.

"They did a good job on him," he added. "They've got to learn from it certainly because I'm sure other teams are going to continue to do it."

Mathieu said the ball-screen trap wasn't a look he'd seen from Illinois in film study, but he noted that Pitino warned him it was a ploy they might use to try to contain him.

"I've struggled with that," Mathieu said. "Every game that I've been trapped on ball screens I've struggled, so I've got to get back in the gym and work on that."

The craziest part of the loss, however, is that Minnesota once led by 11. But Mathieu played a role in that lead evaporating, even though he wasn't on the court when it happened.

Mathieu picked up his second foul at the 11:45 mark of the first half. As is his practice, Pitino sent his point guard to the bench for the rest of the half. The Gophers were leading 14-3 at the time. When Mathieu next set foot on the Williams Arena court, Minnesota was clinging to a 27-24 lead.

Everything was clicking for the Gophers in the first eight minutes. The Illini were the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Minnesota was having its way inside (two Austin Hollins dunks) and out (3-pointers by Andre Hollins and Joey King). The Barn was rocking. Surely the Gophers were going to run away to an easy win against the worst team in the Big Ten.

But without Mathieu, the offense stagnated. It didn't help that the Illini shot the lights out from 3-point range. The conference's second-worst team in long-range shooting drained 6 of 9 treys in the first half and finished the night 8-for-13 from beyond the arc. That eventually softened up the inside, where big man Nnanna Egwu (14 points, 11 rebounds) went to work. And with the defense not getting stops, the Gophers couldn't get into their transition offense, where they have thrived this year.

When Mathieu returned, he committed three quick turnovers as the Illini surged to a five-point lead. He was back on the bench as the Gophers put together a mini run to retake the lead at 35-34. But Kendrick Nunn hit two of his five 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to restore Illinois' five-point cushion, and Minnesota didn't get closer the rest of the night.

Mathieu continued to struggle down the stretch, and even when he did finally find a crease in the Illinois defense - just enough wiggle room to slither down the lane and hoist his trademark, one-hand, flying runner - the shot bounced harmlessly off the back rim. A bucket there could have cut the Illini lead to six points with 5 minutes to go. It was essentially the Gophers' last gasp.

To cap his miserable night, Mathieu missed the front end of a one-and-one with 1:44 to play, then fouled out with 35.4 seconds left.

Over the past two months, Mathieu has proven to be Minnesota' most irreplaceable player. Whether he plays well or poorly, he has a bigger impact on the game than any other Gopher. Nobody knows that more than his head coach, who was quick to point out Mathieu's teammates earned a big share of the blame for Tuesday's loss.

"Yeah, we need him. We definitely need him," Pitino said. "He was in foul trouble. Then he came in at the beginning of the second half. I think he was pressing a little bit, trying to carry us a little bit. But it's not all on him, certainly. We were defending, especially at the beginning of the game and then in the second half we just didn't do it. We made a lot of mistakes."

But even after his brutal assessment of worst game of the year, Mathieu eventually was able to look to the future with a tinge of optimism.

"We're going to keep going out there, playing hard," he said of the season's final four-game stretch. "We won't give the effort that we gave today. We'll go out there, give a better effort the next game and hopefully come out with a victory.

"We've got some really good teams left on the schedule - (No. 15) Iowa at home, (No. 20) Michigan on the road, (No. 24) Ohio State coming up this weekend. We can still get in the (NCAA) tournament with some big wins."

Patrick Donnelly covers Golden Gophers men's basketball for 1500ESPN.com. He has covered the Minnesota sports scene, from pros to preps, for the last 15 years for a variety of outlets.
Email Pat | @donnelly612
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