Gophers can’t keep up with Illini in a 76-53 home loss

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Jan. 5—Minnesota’s 6-foot-9 center Eric Curry won the opening tip over Illinois’ All-America 7-footer Kofi Cockburn to start Tuesday’s Big Ten Conference game at Williams Arena, and Gophers guard Luke Loewe quickly made an early 3-pointer for an early lead.

It was a mirage as a lull set in. That 3-0 lead was Minnesota’s only one as the Illini ran away with a 76-53 win to tag Minnesota (10-2, 1-2 Big Ten) with its second home conference loss this season.

“I thought this was the first time all year that we just didn’t have ‘it’ — whatever ‘it’ is,” head coach Ben Johnson said. “It was just a weird vibe out there from start to finish, and we could just never get out of the funk that we were in.”

The Gophers and Illini (10-3, 3-0) were each coming back from 13-day breaks due to pandemic protocols, so both teams were in the similar odd spots of having their final nonconference games called off and then dealing with this game pushed back 48 hours from Sunday as 10 Illini players tested positive for COVID-19.

For Minnesota, it was a confluence of issues. But stopping — or even slowing — Cockburn, the Big Ten preseason player of the year, was the most troublesome.

“Anybody that can figure out how to guard that guy, let me know,” Johnson said. “You try to battle for post position early, often, late. He’s just a different cat.”

Cockburn put up 29 points in 24 minutes on 10-of-19 shooting and 9 of 11 from the free-throw line. He dominated the U last year, too, with a season-high 33-point,13-rebound effort in a win in December.

The imposing third-year player’s 10 rebounds Tuesday were part of a 52-26 rebounding landslide over the Gophers.

“He has turned himself, because of his hard work, into one of the best players in the country,” Illini coach Brad Underwood said. “There are certain nights where Kofi feels like he can just overpower people.”

When the Gophers beat Michigan for their first conference win in December, Wolverines standout center Hunter Dickinson had 19 points and 10 rebounds, but the U limited them to shoot 16 percent from deep. On Tuesday, Minnesota didn’t maintain its position as one of the best 3-point shooting defenses in the country as the Illini made 43 percent from deep (6 of 14).

The Illini guards, primarily Trent Frasier but also Da’Monte Williams, helped slow Minnesota’s second-leading scorer, Payton Willis, who had zero points as Illinois took a 41-30 lead at halftime. “(Willis’) touches were really really hard,” Underwood said. “Those two guys set the tone for us defensively.”

Besides a cold top scorer, giving up points both inside and out and being beaten badly on the glass, Minnesota also shot 29 percent from the field in the second half and 10 percent form deep. This was the worst of times this season, with Johnson feeling like ball movement on offense wasn’t up to the level it has been this season.

“Our overall energy could have been a lot better,” Minnesota guard Luke Loewe said. “I think we just let things pile up a little bit and can’t let that happen. It got away from us.”

But back to Willis, who has averaged 16.3 points per game. In the home loss to Michigan State, he shot 3 for 13 from the field for nine points, while in the win at Michigan, Willis went 7 for 13 with 17 points.

On Tuesday, Willis finished with nine points on 3-of-11 shooting. He kept hustling though with a steal and layup when the game was decided with three minutes left, and he stayed on the floor while little-used backups played alongside him.

“He’s a good player,” U guard E.J. Stephens said. “He’s going to bounce back like the rest of us. I wouldn’t harp on it too much.”

The Gophers’ leading scorers were Eric Curry and Jamison Battle with 10 apiece.

Midway through the first half, the Illini led by as many as 16 points at 31-15. Toward the end of the opening 20 minutes, the Gophers made their best push, with a 7-0 run, but that was quickly undone by a 6-0 spurt from Illinois to make it 41-30.

To open up the second half, Illinois had a 9-0 run to extend the lead to 20 points, and it pretty much put the game away.

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