Whew. Illinois pulled out a double overtime victory over a tenacious Minnesota Gopher team Tuesday night at the Assembly Hall. It was an exhausting game to play, and it was equally tiring to watch. Both teams wanted desperately to get off on a winning note in Big 10 conference play. Minnesota felt it should have won, but the Illini got the "W."
Illini coach Bruce Weber stated the obvious afterward.
"Pretty intense game for the first Big 10 game. I'm proud of our guys; we grinded it out."
Maybe Weber and Gopher coach Tubby Smith were separated at birth. The way their two teams battled, one may have thought they had the same coaching. Certainly, Smith summarized the game the same as Weber.
"It was quite a basketball game. I thought it was a hard-fought game. Both teams were really grinding it out. You've got to give Illinois a lot of credit. We came back. We had the wind at our back and were playing pretty good, but they responded. We had chances to put the way at the end but couldn't."
It was a game of two opposite halves. The Illini enjoyed a ten point halftime lead on 56% shooting while holding the tight Gophers to a meager 25%. But midway through the second half, Minnesota tightened its defense and created numerous Illini miscues to get back in the game. The Gophers shot a blistering 62.5% in the second half to take a late lead.
It appeared the Illini were destined to lose when Ralph Sampson III scored two of his game high 22 points to give his team a 64-62 lead late in regulation. Meyers Leonard threw the ball away with 20 seconds left, but Julian Welch missed the front end of a one-and-bonus. Leonard drove to the bucket and was fouled with 6.8 seconds remaining. He made both foul shots to take it to overtime.
Minnesota had a 68-67 lead late in the first overtime when Brandon Paul hit a big three. Austin Hollins's drive tied it at 70 to send it to the second overtime. Weber was grateful Paul made the shot, but his intent was something different entirely since his junior leader had been making poor decisions on shots and passes.
"I was actually trying to take him out, and he hit the three, which was huge. We were trying to get it out of his hands, to be honest. He made a big three. At the same time, he's got to do a better job of decision-making."
The second overtime was all Illinois. Paul hit a free throw and then stole the ball and dunked for a 73-70 lead. Leonard hit two free throws. A Sampson jumper cut it to three, but Paul hit one of two freebies, and Leonard made a spin move in the lane with the shot clock running down to push the lead to 78-72.
Leonard was asked if the Illini felt fortunate to win.
"I wouldn't say fortunate at all. I'd say a real good first half, kind of locked them down. Second half we came out a little sluggish and missed shots. We're kind of a young team, but we still have older guys and good players that can make plays. We came out in the overtimes and did what we had to do to win."
The thrilling ending shouldn't detract from the second straight outstanding game by Joe Bertrand off the bench. In fact, he may be earning a spot in the starting lineup, especially against smaller opponents where he is not outmatched at the power forward position.
"I'm happy for him," Weber stated. "Joe stays with what he can do well. I'm happy he had one turnover. I don't even remember the one.
"You've got to feel good for the kid. He's been very patient. He was our leading scorer in Europe, and he started the season pretty good. He hit a little bit of a wall, and he's come back. It definitely adds to our team. We're better offensively because we have more weapons. He can get to the basket, and when they're small it's easier to guard."
Weber explained why he went to Bertrand.
"It's just a tough matchup for Tyler (Griffey), whether it's Kimmie English with Missouri or Rodney Williams. He is a three man and is very mobile. You get him involved in ball screens, and it makes it tough. We gave Tyler a chance, he got a couple fouls. We gave Mike Shaw a chance, he got a couple fouls. Joe produced. We're better offensively with Joe in there."
The Illini placed five players in double figures. Paul led the team with 21 points despite 5 for 16 shooting. He deposited 8 of 10 free throws, had seven rebounds, six assists and two steals. However, he also had five turnovers and made some poor decisions with the ball. He knows he must improve in that area.
"That's something I've still got to grow out of. I'm making way too many turnovers. It's something I've got to work on. Tracy (Abrams) is a freshman, so he's gonna make those kinds of mistakes. But Meyers and I are older. They pressured us; they're a good defensive team. So part of it is that, but part of it is making better decisions and playing stronger."
Leonard had another double-double, scoring 20 points and grabbing 11 boards. He also had five turnovers to go with his five big blocks. Bertrand and Richardson each added 13 points, Bertrand extending his consecutive basket streak to 12 in a row through two games before missing.
Leonard made a believer out of Smith.
"I was impressed with how tough Meyers Leonard is around the basket. His scoring inside, his five blocks. Those are all crucial blocks."
He also admitted Illini "small ball" gave his team difficulty at times.
"It does create problems. D.J. and Paul were knocking down those threes, so it creates a mismatch when he's out there. Their guys are very quick and athletic and very good three point shooters."
Again, the home crowd played a role in the victory according to Paul.
"The crowd was a big help. They stayed in tune with us and supported us."
This was the first game without Crandall Head, who has left the program. Weber is saddened with the loss of Luther's younger brother, but he wasn't able to make the changes necessary to become a viable member of the team.
"Crandall was frustrated, but he got himself behind with some things. You feel bad for him. He's a young man we've known since he was probably ten years old. We just wish him the best. There's no doubt we can use his quickness and athleticism. But he's got to make good decisions in life, in the classroom and on the court if he's ever gonna get productive."
The Illini are still far from the efficient team they need to become. But all those details will be worked on beginning tomorrow. In the meantime, the Illini need to enjoy this win and get some rest before the rest of the Big 10 season.
"I just hope the next 17 aren't like this because I can't take it," Weber concludes.