Two Games Mirror Images Of One Another

Turnabout is fair play. The Fighting Illini defeated Minnesota at home in overtime back in late December. In the return match in Minneapolis, the Illini had the lead late but allowed the Gophers to tie the game on a three point play in regulation. Minnesota then dominated overtime to win 77-72. Poor shooting, especially from the arc and free throw line, was the Illini downfall.

Illinois held a 64-61 lead with twelve seconds left in regulation. Minnesota's Austin Hollins drove the lane, and all the Illini had to do was stand aside and let him score to keep the lead and get the ball back with four seconds left in the game.

But Meyers Leonard was moving slightly as he stood in the way of Hollins, and he was whistled for his fifth foul. Hollins made the layup and free throw to send the game to overtime. The Gophers dominated from there. Illini coach Bruce Weber questioned the foul call on Leonard.

"To me, it wasn't a foul. You let everything happen physically in the game, and then you call that when somebody is trying to avoid somebody. You've got to give them credit. They made the play when it counted, and the free throw."

The game was in jeopardy because of what happened prior to that. The Illini fell behind 39-29 early in the second half but responded with a 15-2 run to take the lead. All they had to do was play Minnesota even the rest of the way. It didn't happen.

"We had the game, but we didn't stop them down the stretch. They made 17 points in the last five minutes. On some of them, they were taking it to you, and you're scrambling."

The Illini had doubled the Gophers on the play-hard chart at one point in the second half. For all the inconsistencies in the rest of their game, the Illini pleased Weber with their hustle.

"I couldn't be prouder of our kids. We played our butts off. They did what we asked, although it wasn't perfect."

This Illinois team was labeled "blue collar" for a reason. They battle, but they lack the refined skill set to make shots and handle the ball under duress. Games must be won through 100% effort. In that respect, the Illini came to play on this night.

But they made just 19 of 28 free throws and were a mere 14% on three point shots (3 of 21). Brandon Paul hit 1 of 8 and D.J. Richardson 1 of 6 from the arc. The Illini had a slight advantage on the boards but gave up 16 turnovers that led to 10 Gopher points. It appears Weber may have to limit his team's three point shooting.

"On threes we're atrocious. We've got to cool it on the threes."

Weber played his bench more, but it was outscored 39-9 by Gopher reserves. Minnesota coach Tubby Smith has a deep bench, and his backups hit 7 of their first 8 shots and scored 20 of their 30 first half points. Weber's group lacked the same magic, but at least the Illini made a concerted effort to play more people.

Weber, who is under fire from a portion of his fans for not winning more games, has also been questioned recently about playing his starters much of the time. Sensing more complaints, Weber bristled when discussing his game plan.

"Somebody will question it. No matter what you do it gets questioned. Somebody will have a column tomorrow I'm sure. But we made a decision to try to play them, be aggressive. I thought they did good. I thought they all did good."

Paul had 6 more turnovers but led the Illini with 28 points, many coming late in the game on drives and free throws. He also grabbed 9 boards and was credited with two assists, two steals and 3 blocked shots. But Weber needs him to play that way the entire game, not just when the Illini get behind late.

"Brandon's got to be better. He's got to have a sense of urgency and do things in the first half. Go to the basket and heck with the threes."

Leonard's statistics were excellent for the most part. His fourth double-double included 17 points and 13 rebounds. He also had 2 assists and four blocks on the night. But while his athletic body has reached manhood, his knowledge of the game is still in the informative stages.

For all his great assets, he lacks experience and maturity. For instance, with the Illini holding a 54-48 lead, Leonard made a mistake that ruined an Illini possession. In an effort to make up for it, he double-teamed Andre Hollins at midcourt and drew his fourth foul. Had he not made that foul, he would have been available for overtime where his absence was noticeable.

Leonard made an unnecessary pass shortly thereafter that prevented a scoring opportunity. Leonard's five fouls and three turnovers negated some of his good work.

The Illini have now lost three games in a row. A number of Big 10 teams have endured streaks similar to that and reversed it with multiple wins. Weber uses one example to keep his Illini players thinking positively.

"Wisconsin lost three in a row and had a heartbreaker on the road, and now they've won four out of five. So it's how you respond."

The Illini don't have much time to prepare for the league leader, but Weber is encouraged despite the loss.

"We fought. That's all we can ask of our kids. I'm proud of them, proud of our staff for what we did tonight. It's disappointing we lost. Now we've got to get ready for Tuesday night. We've got a heck of a game with Michigan State on Blue-Out night."

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