Illinois falls short against Minnesota 84-67

DAVID MERCER Associated Press Published:

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -- A few days after getting a big conference win, No. 12 Illinois felt the sting of a loss to a top-10 team, falling 84-67 to No. 8 Minnesota on Wednesday night.

The Illini (14-3, 1-2 Big Ten) struggled with their shooting -- 35.4 percent overall and 12.5 percent from 3-point range -- and got the worst of a physical battle with the Gophers (15-1, 3-0).

Leading scorer Brandon Paul spent close to five minutes on the bench and in the locker room with a bloody nose.

"We played our butts off," Illinois coach John Groce said. "(But) our execution was awful -- awful. And when you play a team as good as them, that's what's gonna happen."

Paul finished with 21 points for Illinois and D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams scored 14 each.

But that was no match for Joe Coleman, who led Minnesota with a career-high 29 points, and Andre Hollins' 22 points. If that wasn't enough, Trevor Mbakwe added 19 and 11 rebounds.

The Gophers hit 53 percent of their shots, including 9 for 15 from 3-point range.

"When you shoot well, any team is different," Gopher coach Tubby Smith said. "And we've been shooting well -- anybody can step up on any day. Like tonight, Joe Coleman stepped up and played outstanding."

The physical matchup took its toll on the Illini. And as Illinois piled up fouls, Mbakwe connected on a layup with 6:15 to play for a 62-49 lead that Illinois couldn't overcome.

The Gophers' strong second half started with an early 8-2 run that pushed the lead to 42-32.

While the Gophers were mostly plodding through the second half's first five minutes, Illinois struggled even more.

The Illini missed their first seven shots of the half and saw their shooting rate for the game drop briefly below 22 percent. They finished at just 34.5 percent and 12.5 percent from 3-point range.

At one point, with the shot clock ticking low, the Gophers fumbled with the ball and almost lost it near half court. Hollins finally scooped it up and heaved a desperate shot from half court as the shot clock almost expired. The ball gently slid off the glass and in for a 3-pointer that made the score 42-30.

Illinois fought back within 44-42 with 12:37 to play when Bertrand pulled down a big defensive rebound, dribbled the length of the court and connected on a jump shot from inside the paint.

The crowd rose with the shot, sensing a comeback. But just as quickly as Illinois got back into the game, it fell back out.

Less than a minute after his shot and with Illinois down 46-42, Bertrand headed to the bench with his fourth foul.

Hollins made his free throws to put Minnesota back up by six, 48-42 with 11:54 to play.

Ten seconds later he hit a 3-pointer that extended that lead to 51-42.

"There's highs and lows to the game," Illinois center Nnanna Egwu said. "Just the whole stretch, I think, kind of turned things around."

The physical tone was set early.

Paul went over Mbakwe just over three minutes into the game for a flying, right-handed dunk that left the Gopher forward on the floor.

Less than a minute later, Paul had to leave the floor, cupping a hand under a bloody nose after a foul by Austin Hollins. The senior guard spent the next five minutes on the bench with an ice pack on his nose and, finally, in the locker room.

The Illini survived that early stretch just fine. Richardson hit a long 3-pointer with 10:46 left in the half for a 16-11 lead just before Paul returned.

The Gophers felt the frustration.

Center Elliott Eliason headed to the bench a short time later after a foul he didn't think he committed only to be met by a sharp "Do your job!" from Smith.

"I thought certainly Illinois had the right game plan," Smith said. "They were physical with us early on. ... We did some things in the second half to try to mix it up."