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Rodney Williams scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds before fouling out.

A roller coaster of emotions for Gopher fans in a back-and-forth B1G conference opener against Illinois ended in an 81-72 double-overtime defeat, sending Minnesota to its first loss since Thanksgiving. Meyers Leonard, the big Illini center, was a monster and Illinois had five players register double figures in scoring.

Playing in only their second game since Dec. 13, Minnesota once again came out sluggish and found themselves nearly hopelessly down 13 midway through the second half. Missed opportunities on the offensive end were to blame as the Gophers shot less than 25% from the field in the first half. As we’ve seen all year, however, the second half brought more intensity and Minnesota quickly turned a 13-point deficit into a two-point lead through a full-court press, which caused several Illini turnovers.

Looking to ice the game and win at Assembly Hall for only the second time since 1996, Julian Welch missed the front end of a one-and-one with 16 seconds to play giving Illinois the opportunity to tie the game, which they did.

Overtime was just as intense as the first 40 minutes, with neither team giving an inch. Again, the Gophers were in the driver’s seat with the period’s final possession, but Welch duffed an easy layup that once again would have given the Gophers a significant advantage. The second OT was all Illinois as Minnesota only went 1-7 from the field , sealing their fate.

Considering all that has happened to the Gophers this season it seems like a minor miracle that they were even in a position to win this game at all. We were all looking forward to the conference opener to gauge how the Gophers would stand up to much stiffer competition, and it’s safe to say they passed the test. Perhaps more importantly, they showed some spine by actually battling back from double digits in the second half and making it a game. It would have been easy to pack it in on the road and take the beating.

However, let’s not get lost in the fact that this was a winnable game, and Minnesota was in position not once, but twice to ice the victory and head some with the win. It’s really, really hard to rip Welch for his missed opportunities considering he was a main reason that the Gophers were in a position to win the game at all, but come on. Why does he have to miss THAT free throw? Really? And the missed gimme-layup in OT? Ugh. We all know it’s not his fault, he just got caught up in a couple “That’s Gopher Basketball” moments.

One thing to consider after watching the game: are the Gophers really in as much trouble as we thought they were after the Mbakwe injury? Everyone, myself included, wrote the team off immediately after he went down and just hoped for a couple fun victories the rest of the way. But considering how they’ve played since the injury, I’m inclined to believe that this team has plenty to give and should still be taken seriously an NCAA Tournament contender. This was by far the stiffest competition they’ve face since Mbakwe went down, and the Gophers took a legitimate Big Ten team to the wire on the road in a place that not even the 1997 squad was able to win in. Is Minnesota better off without Mbakwe? Certainly not. But they’ve been forced to change their game in his absence and the team’s athleticism is showing through. They aren’t forced to run the offense through Mbakwe, which has given guys like Williams and Welch the opportunity to have the ball more. This has resulted in good things.

Notes/observations:

  • We got a good look at the lineups that Tubby will probably use going forward, though I’m really, really hoping that Dre Hollins and Mav Ahanmisi flip roles very soon. Hollins looked decent in his 16 minutes, racking up nine points but committing three turnovers. Williams, Sampson, Welch, Ahanmisi and Austin Hollins saw the majority of the playing time with Eliason, Coleman and Dre seeing the major bench minutes. Chip Armelin, Oto Osenieks and Andre Ingram saw slim PT. The #FreeChip conversation will certainly be something to monitor.
  • Ralph Sampson led all scorers with 22 points and pulled down nine rebounds. That’s a serious stat line from a guy Minnesota will rely on during conference play. We won’t need 22 points every time, but outputs in the 15-20 point range should not be surprises from Sampson.
  • Minnesota only shot 37% from the field, which almost was the dagger early, and only hit 4-14 three-point attempts. Sampson and Welch were a combined 12-32, which hurts.
  • The Gophers went an amazing 16-18 from the free-throw line (good for 89%!!). Unfortunately, one of those misses came in the final seconds of regulation when the game could have been cemented in Minnesota’s favor.
  • The Gophers forced an impressive 21 turnovers, many on their full-court press, which was instrumental in their comeback. Defense has been their rock of late, and it’s nice to see it causing trouble against a legitimate Big Ten team.