Starters Rodney Williams, Ralph Sampson III and Julian Welch had quiet games for the Gophers (16-6, 4-5 Big Ten), but their bench outscored the Illini's 39-9. Elliott Eliason, Oto Osenieks and Andre Hollins backed up Armelin's big game to lead the second unit.
"They played with a lot of passion. Not that the other guys didn't, but sometimes I think the (starters) kind of want to pace themselves some," Smith said, then contrasted that with his reserves: "But when they go in the game, they're going all out."
Illinois coach Bruce Weber called this game his team's breaking point, and the Fighting Illini faltered when Minnesota cranked up the energy and fed off its first sellout crowd of the season.
Brandon Paul had 22 of his 28 points after the break for the Illini (15-6, 4-4), who surged ahead while the Gophers slumped through a 2 for 9 stretch at the free-throw line during the second half. But Meyers Leonard, who finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds, committed a costly fifth foul with four seconds left to give Austin Hollins a three-point play that tied the score at 64.
Weber questioned the foul, describing the call on Leonard as "a little bump." Even Austin Hollins acknowledged it could've gone either way.
"It was pretty mediocre," Hollins said.
Now Illinois, which lost to Minnesota for only the third time in the last 26 meetings, must bounce back the way the Gophers did from four straight losses to start the conference season.
"We've got to do what Tubby did," Weber said. "Now we'll see what we're all about."
Paul had six turnovers and went 1 for 8 from 3-point range, and the Illini finished 3 for 21 from behind the arc.
"We fought. We dove on the floor sometimes. We played tough, but they made plays at the end," Paul said.
Andre Hollins stole a cross-court pass out of the post by Leonard, setting up a three-point play on the other end when Elliott Eliason made a free throw, missed the second, and Rodney Williams followed with a dunk on the rebound — tying the score at 58 with 58 seconds left in regulation.
"He's good for one of those a game, at least," said Austin Hollins, who stepped out of bounds after catching an inbound pass with 44 seconds left. He made up for the mistake by swishing a 3-pointer on the next possession to cut the lead to 62-61.
After a pair of free throws by Paul made it 64-61, the Gophers got a last look. Instead of setting up for a 3-pointer, Austin Hollins drove to the lane and converted an up-and-under scoop shot with 4 seconds left, shockingly drawing Leonard's fifth foul.
"I was just happy to hear that whistle," Hollins said.
Smith said he didn't second-guess the decision to go to the basket.
"We were looking for a 3, but if he could take it all the way that's the way we operate," Smith said. So after a half's worth of excruciating misses at the line, here came the biggest one of all, and Hollins swished it to tie the game and send it to overtime.
Austin Hollins started the extra period with a pair of free throws. Andre Hollins then swished a step-back jumper to give the Gophers a 68-64 lead, and they never gave it back. Andre Hollins put the exclamation on the game when he found an opening in the lane and flipped in an off-balance layup with 1:32 left to draw a foul and complete the three-point play for a 74-67 lead.
The freshman turned to stare at the student section and waved his arms up and down to encourage even louder cheers.
"I've just been waiting on this, just working hard in practice," said Andre Hollins, who finished with 14 points.
The Illini have made a habit of tight games like this, their sixth straight decided by five points or less. That's their longest such streak since 1929.
They were out of control at the end and badly missed Leonard in overtime. Early in the extra period, a no-look flip pass by Paul in the lane skidded through Nnanna Egwu's hands and out of bounds for another turnover.
"I still think the Big Ten is wide open," Paul said. "Games like this happen all the time. They're a good team. They're well-coached. They play hard. I still think we're the better team. We might see them down the road."