Sandell: Loss to Illinois leaves Gophers to sweat out Selection Sunday
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CHICAGO -- The only sounds in the Gophers' locker room came from a running shower and the rustling of sweaty jerseys being collected in the middle of the room.
The Gophers have experienced a tumultuous range of emotions this season, but the post-game scene Thursday afternoon at the United Center was about as bleak as it has been.
Words were hard to come by as the players sat with glazed over expressions, some in or close to tears. They were shell-shocked in the aftermath of watching their Big Ten tournament stay abruptly end with a buzzer-beating jumper by Illinois' Brandon Paul.
Paul didn't hesitate with the game clock ticking towards zero, apart from a nifty ball fake and crossover. With the score tied at 49, he found a clearing on the left side of the court and let off a shot that put a crushing end to a game that stood as a 40-minute synopsis of the Gophers' season as a whole.
"You rather lose by 100 than a last second shot," forward Rodney Williams, his tone ripe with dejection. "This is definitely the toughest one of the season."
In the end, the same storyline that has haunted the Gophers over and over in the last several months was given another chapter.
As the refrain has gone, the opportunity at a victory was in their grasp, but self-inflicted errors and a clutch shot by their opponent left them reeling.
Nineteen turnovers, inconsistent scoring, wavering intensity, early foul trouble, errant charge calls and a simple failure to execute at critical times all culminated to negate the Gophers' spirited second half push.
For extended moments in the second half, the Gophers' dismal first half looked as if it would be forgotten as a result of a strong come-from-behind run.
A feeling of "Here we go again" settled over the Gophers in the game's early goings after their 7-2 start was erased by a 21-4 Illinois run.
Only seven minutes had passed in the first half when key starters Austin Hollins and Trevor Mbakwe were found on the bench after being tagged with their second fouls. Without Mbakwe presence in the post and Hollins' hot shooting, the Gophers' tumble began
Smith, as has typically been his style when a player picks up a pair of early fouls, sat Hollins and Mbakwe for the remainder of the half. Although, in a surprising turn Smith admitted to second-guessing the decision to keep them on the bench, the damage had already been inflicted.
When the mistakes started to kick in, Illinois was right there to capitalize. Following Mbakwe's exit with 13:02 remaining, the rest of the Gophers managed only nine more points before halftime, heading to the locker room down 25-16 - the team's lowest scoring half this season. While he returned to be a critical part of his team's second half turnaround, it was the initial minutes that had Mbakwe placing blame on himself for what had transpired.
"Frustrated. Disappointed," Mbakwe said, describing his emotions after the game. "It hurts. I feel bad, because I let my team down in the first half getting into foul trouble ... I have to find a way to stay in the game and not let fouls be the reason I'm on the bench."
However, blame for the Gophers' ultimate result has spread around to the entire team, not just Mbakwe.
Their reemergence in the second half made it seem like they would have no reason to take fault or point fingers.
The Gophers were thankful to still be within striking distance at halftime, and that relief was streamlined into a rejuvenated sense of direction. As quick as they had fallen behind, they stormed back to outplay Illinois coming out of the half.
Andre Hollins, who went 1-of-6 from the floor in the first 20 minutes, hit back-to-back three pointers and Austin Hollins added one of his own to help tie the game by the 12:42 mark. The Gophers finally started looking part of a team deserving of being on the cusp of their first NCAA tournament bid since 2009-10
"We knew we played horrible and were only down by nine," Andre Hollins said. "We played without two of our starters for most of the first half. We had to take that into account and not hang our head ... We came back, rebounded, shot well, got to the rim, got to the free throw line, got a couple and-1s and fought our way back into the game."
They reclaimed the lead by the half's midpoint and kept a hold of it as they entered the closing stretch. Grasping to a three-point lead, they were within three minutes of taking their opening at securing a second round match-up with Indiana, and regaining the momentum lost by a sputtering finish to the regular season.
But at the game's most crucial juncture, the Jekyll and Hyde Gophers transformed back into the dreaded version of themselves.
In a possession that lasted nearly 70 seconds, Illinois missed four shots, but overcame the Gophers to grab offensive rebounds on all four. D.J. Richardson, who was part of an Illini squad that shot 28.1% in the second half, hit a 3-pointer that tied the game and delivered a gut-punch to Smith's team.
Regardless, the Gophers still controlled their own fate with 15.3 seconds reaming.
It was fitting, in a demoralizing manner, that the final turning point came down to a Gophers' turnover.
Twice the Gophers tried to in-bound the ball from the side of the court. Smith quickly called a timeout when he saw no openings on the first attempt. On the second, Rodney Williams immediately dished the ball to Austin Hollins. Seeing nothing to work with, Hollins tried to throw the ball off his swarming defender as he lost his balance. Hollins said he felt as if he had been pushed over on the play, but it was called a turnover.
As soon as Paul's shot went in seconds later, Hollins veered off directly to the locker room, his jersey over his eyes as reserve forward Mo Walker moved quickly to console him on the way out.
Just like that, the Gophers' chance at a fresh start in the Big Ten tournament had been severed.
What could have been a win that would have considerably lessened the Gophers long shot trend towards the NCAA tournament bubble turned into a loss that will have the team sweating come Selection Sunday.
With an RPI that has stayed strong despite their struggles and a decent assortment of signature wins, the Gophers are by most accounts on their way to the tournament. The difference between feeling secure and stumbling in are notably different. There is also a large gap between making it into the parity-filled 68-team field and deserving to be there.
Thursday's loss marked the Gophers' 11th loss in their last 16 games.
Smith, who sat at the podium after the game in a baffled state, has continued to be a full supporter of his team's tournament credentials. But he did confess that he will not rest easy from now until the final bracket is announced.
For now, the Gophers' fate is in the hands of the tournament committee.
"We'll be wondering and hoping," Smith said. "We have had our chances for the last three games ... We haven't played well of late, but when you look at the entire body of work I think we've done enough. But it's not up to us ... It will be a sweat it out type thing."