Illinois came out as flat as they've been all year. Even the late-arriving crowd lacked the enthusiasm and fire it sometimes shows. As a result, the Illini scored only 14 first half points and put themselves in a hole from which they could never escape despite an impressive comeback.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber acknowledged the obvious.
"We gave a valiant effort, but we didn't have enough energy early. You've got to make shots. I don't think we had a great mindset going into it. I don't know if we just think we're gonna win at home, but the last two games we've struggled.
"We haven't shot the ball at the magic level. When you don't make shots, you start hanging your head. We gave up way too many points in the paint. Too many easy layups."
Minnesota found comfort in a zone defense. Gopher coach Tubby Smith said his decision to use it was not predicated on the Illini's problems against Ohio State's zone.
"The zone has been good for us lately. We did it because we've been struggling guarding people in man-to-man all year and giving up easy baskets. They were missing shots early, so the longer the game goes on, the tougher it gets to make them. So we decided to stay in it. We've been playing zone the last few games out of necessity.
"Demetri McCamey can really penetrate, and we didn't give him many opportunities to beat us one on one. That was a big key to going to the zone as well."
Illini Bill Cole, who was the lone offensive bright spot with 5 of 9 three point buckets, realized the Illini weren't doing what was needed to get the Gophers out of their zone.
"The zone didn't surprise us. We knew they were gonna play some. We were real stagnant in the first half. We weren't playing with energy like we should. They had some length on their team, so when they go into the 3-2 or 2-3 zones, it disrupted what we wanted to do. Anytime you go 0 for 11 against the zone in the first half, you're not gonna be very good."
Weber expanded on the offensive ineptitude.
"The zone has been 80% of our practice the last couple days. We don't get many inside touches, we're not a great passing team. Against a zone, you've got to pass the ball, and you've got to make reads.
"When you don't shoot it well for three, 9 for 36 is not very good. A lot of those were down the stretch. And we didn't get to the free throw line. We missed so many shots, but we didn't get offensive rebounds the first half."
Illinois shot only 22.6% from the field the first half. Minnesota took a ten point lead into the locker room after converting 42% of their shots. They expanded their lead in the second half to 51-32 as the Illini appeared dead in the water.
It was then that Mike Davis, who enjoyed a third straight double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds, scored six straight to give the Illini hope. That began a stretch where the Illini scored 26 points in 6 minutes to make it a game. Cole hit two threes, Brandon Paul had a three and two freebies, McCamey hit his one three, and D.J. Richardson hit two straight threes to narrow the margin to 59-58.
However, McCamey tried to force the action by penetrating into the lane. He mistakenly went into the air with nowhere to go with the ball. His wild lefty pass found only Gophers, and their transition resulted in a Paul Carter dunk. Weber said that play killed Illini chances.
"We made a little push but just couldn't get over the hump. We gave ourselves a chance. It was a one possession game. You have to play smart, not panic. But we give up a play, they get a dunk at the other end instead of you make a shot. Obviously, we're very disappointed."
A Mike Tisdale putback of his own miss made it 62-60, and the Illini had one last chance with 7 seconds left as Ralph Sampson III missed two free throws. The final play was designed for Richardson since McCamey had just fouled out. He describes what happened.
"The play was for me for the last second shot. I was supposed to shoot a three, but I took an extra dribble. I wasn't comfortable with the shot, so I tried to get in a more comfortable spot. My feet weren't set, and I knew there were a couple seconds left. It was a worse shot."
The ball bounced harmlessly off the rim, giving the Gophers their first victory in the Assembly Hall since 1996. The Illini made it a game, but they must play more than the last 7 minutes if they expect to win. The game was lost much earlier than that.
McCamey has been the Illini star recently, but he was only 4 of 18 from the field and had three turnovers. He still dished out 10 assists, many on the late threes. But he struggled, and he sometimes appeared to shoot reluctantly even when wide open. Weber wasn't about to throw his leader under the bus, but he needs McCamey to play well.
"He's been so good for us. I think he got frustrated by guys not making shots. He probably forced some things. One for 12 from three, and he made his last one. That doesn't help us. He's carried us, and we probably go as he goes. Today he wasn't quite as good as he's been most of this last stretch."
These are intense times for several Big 10 teams. So much rides on every outcome, a possible NCAA tournament invite and seeding for the Big 10 Tournament among them. As Cole relates, those on the bubble must keep a constant state of vigilance.
"We try not to put too much pressure on ourselves, but at some point we've got to realize what we're playing for. These games are huge for teams in the middle of the pack like us. No one's a lock yet, and no one's all the way out. That was a huge game for them, and it was a huge game for us."
There are two more huge games coming up to end the regular season, and neither will be easy. First it's Tuesday at Ohio State, the likely Big 10 champ who destroyed the Illini at the Assembly Hall, and always tough Wisconsin next Sunday at home. Weber is trying to keep his players confident and focused.
"It's been a tough stretch. We had kept our head above water, and now the shark's got us by the leg and is pulling us down. We've got to see if we can survive it. You've got to reach down and find that energy, that passion."