MINNEAPOLIS — With his team trailing by double-digits, Illinois guard D.J. Richardson calmly stepped up hit a 3-pointer. Then another. Just like that, Minnesota’s lead shrunk to four points.
Richardson wasn’t done with his long-range assault, and neither were the Fighting Illini. With the Gophers clinging to a two-point lead just before halftime, Richardson hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send his team to the locker room with a one-point edge.
Minnesota knew it would need to stop Illinois’ 3-point attack Sunday if the Gophers wanted to fend off the visiting Illini, but Tubby Smith’s squad simply couldn’t. Illinois went on to hit 10 of 20 shots from beyond the arc, including one in the final minute to seal a 57-53 road win over the reeling Gophers.
For the Illini, Sunday’s 3-point barrage capped an impressive week that included wins against No. 1 Indiana and now No. 18 Minnesota. For the Gophers, their second straight loss will likely drop them out of the Top 25 polls as they continue to search for answers.
“It’s tough. You lose games. Losing at home is even tougher,” said senior Trevor Mbakwe, who had a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. “But it’s a long season. We’re not done. That was a hard loss for us, but we know we’re right there. We’ve just got to stop hurting ourselves, really, and we’ll be fine.”
Leading up to Sunday’s game, the Gophers stressed the importance of contesting Illinois’ 3-pointers. It wasn’t a problem when Minnesota won in Champaign earlier this season, as the Illini shot just 3 of 24 from 3-point range in an 84-67 loss to the Gophers.
Since then, the Illini have heated up from long distance. They made nine 3-pointers in a five-point loss to Michigan State and went 9 for 24 in Thursday’s win over top-ranked Indiana.
When Tracy Abrams hit a 3-pointer with 15 seconds to play, it sealed the road win for the Illini and also helped Illinois match its best 3-point percentage of the season. The Illini were 10 for 20 from the floor Sunday, equaling the 50 percent they shot in a win over Georgia Tech (14-for-28).
Abrams’ three in the final minute was a contested shot, but many of the Illini’s 10 makes from downtown were on wide-open looks. Sam McLaurin was left open at the top of the arc and attempted — and made — his first 3-pointer of his four-year college career. Tyler Griffey hit 4-of-7 shots from downtown, including an uncontested shot in the corner to put the Illini up 52-48 with just over five minutes remaining.
“I think the main thing was just getting out on the threes,” said Gophers junior Austin Hollins. “They hit a ton of threes. That’s what they do, they shoot the ball, so you’ve got to get out there and make them drive to the basket.”
Minnesota had one of the worst 3-point defenses in the Big Ten, as the Gophers’ opponents shot 34.2 percent from beyond the arc, third-highest in the conference. Sunday’s outing certainly didn’t help that stat.
There are plenty of issues the Gophers need to iron out to get back on track — turnovers are still a problem, the bench has been less than productive, and the offense becomes stagnant at key times. But stopping opponents from downtown has to rank high on the list, especially after the way Illinois fought back from 12 points down thanks to 3-pointers.
“Everyone’s out there playing hard, but we’ve got to give the extra effort,” Hollins said. “We know they’re a 3-point shooting team, with them setting ball screens and setting down screens. I think communication is a big part of that, too.”
Williams misses game with shoulder injury: Sunday’s loss added insult to injury for the Gophers, who were without star forward Rodney Williams. The senior suffered a shoulder injury during a collision in practice Saturday and spent the entire game on the bench.
“It felt a little strange,” Williams said of watching from the sideline. “But we’ve got a lot of other guys that could step up in my place. I think everybody stepped up big for us. It was just the little things like turnovers and transition defense that messed us up.”
Williams said that he “definitely will be playing Thursday” when the Wisconsin Badgers come to town. In Williams’ place, the Gophers started Elliott Eliason at center. The 6-foot-11 redshirt sophomore had four points, 10 rebounds, three assists and a pair of blocks.
“Elliott gives us everything. He goes hard,” Smith said. “I was impressed. He’s been playing well.”