MINNEAPOLIS — No matter what happens along the way, Illini basketball games boil down to the final minute ... free throws ... clutch shots ... desperation.
Saturday night's Williams Arena shootout was the same but different.
In a remarkable exchange of scoring runs, Illinois won it, lost it, won it, lost it and it ended there, 77-72 in overtime ... the UI's third straight last-ditch loss after winning 10 of 11 previously in tight finishes.
There are those who preach fouling with a three-point lead and the clock dipping under :07, but that foul dare not come in the act of shooting. That's what happened. Illinois led 64-61 with the seconds ticking off, and Minnesota's hard-driving Austin Hollins drew an unintentional fifth foul from Meyers Leonard at :04 as the layin caromed in. Hollins' free throw sent the game into overtime and the Illini, without Leonard (17 points, 13 rebounds), saw the Gophers avenge their overtime loss in Champaign earlier.
Credit Tubby Smith's bench. The Gopher reserves produced 13 field goals and 39 points.
UI junior Brandon Paul turned in another extraordinary late-game effort as he brought Illinois back from a 44-35 deficit with 22 of his 28 points after that point. Paul and Leonard combined to build leads of 58-53 and, on two Paul free throws at :12, 64-61.
Both sides missed free throws, Minnesota 12 and Illinois 10. In the end, the shot making of the unrelated Hollins boys, Austin and Andre, made the difference. They combined for 26 points, 15 of them in game's final 5:30.
"We didn't stop them in the stretch," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "They made the plays when it counted. We played our butts off. But we were atrocious from the three-point line (3 of 21).
"We need Brandon to play with that urgency from the beginning. But, overall, I couldn't be prouder."
Illini bench failures were emphasized in the first half when Minnesota's Smith, frustrated by a lackluster getaway (a 15-8 deficit), stunned the home crowd by subbing at all five positions.
The Gophers came alive with two quick goals by sophomore Chip Armelin, and the reserves went on a 10-0 run that reversed the momentum.
"I haven't seen the reserves do anything like that all season," said Spencer Tollackson, Gopher broadcaster, at the break.
The Minnesota subs drained eight of their first nine shots and racked 20 first-half points to send Minnesota ahead 30-26. For Illinois, meanwhile, the first-half letdown could be traced directly to Weber's attempt to give early playing time to several backups. The Illini went nearly five minutes without a basket and, once the Gophers moved ahead, they picked up steam from a supportive crowd.
The Minnesota coach mixed regulars and subs after halftime. Armelin southpawed his third trey to make it 44-35, at which point (with 12:00 to go), the entire UI team had just two bombs. And yet, Illinois rallied with a 17-3 run as Paul and Leonard became dominant on the offensive end.
Barring sudden changes Wednesday — bound to happen — Ohio State and Michigan will again dominate Big Ten football recruiting. Those two have the only five-star players poised to sign, according to Rivals. The rest of the Big Ten has none. Those two have 23 four-star prospects. The other 10 conference schools have 22.
While neither Rivals nor Scout credit the Illini with any four-star players, recruiting analyst Tom Lemming puts two Floridians in that category: running back Dan Ayoola and defensive tackle Teko Powell. Lemming adds that two of the three in-state commitments, Mount Carmel tackle Vontrell Williams and Lincoln-Way East receiver Jason Robertson, are three-plus in his differing view. At the same time, NCSA analyst and former Illini center Randy Taylor calls 6-foot-5 Kansas receiver Elliot Faerber "a sleeper with a big up-side," and Pennsylvanian T.J. Neal a "downhill linebacker with good potential."
It's a weak class — rated last in the Big Ten by Scout — but ousted coach Ron Zook did his best with the ax over his head. Tim Beckman and his new staff have conducted three busy weekends of campus visits and hope to announce some surprises Wednesday. Beckman tried to get in on Minnesota's top prospect, Andre McDonald, when the Hopkins receiver decommitted from Vanderbilt, but he elected to stay home with the Gophers.
Notes with a Minneapolis tinge:
— Royce White, whose social anxiety disorder is believed to be at the root of problems that caused his departure from Minnesota, leads Iowa State in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals, and is the only player in the six major conferences to lead his team in all five. White had 18 points, nine rebounds and five assists in serving Kansas its first Big 12 loss, 72-64, Saturday.
— Californian Julian Welch, a juco transfer attending his fourth school in five years, is shooting 82 percent on free throws for the Gophers. You might say that when he stepped to the line at Illinois on Dec. 27 with Minnesota leading 64-62 and 15 seconds left, there was roughly an 80 percent chance the Gophers would win. But he missed, Leonard didn't, and Illinois won in double overtime. Welch was barely noticeable Saturday, scoring two points in 20 minutes.
— Booze at a campus sports event always raises a furor. But it'll probably be cleared at Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium if the Vikings move there while an outdoor facility replaces the Metrodome. If it happens, and it's still in the development stage, you could attend a beer-less Gopher game one day and guzzle all you want with the Vikings a day later. Last I heard they spent $18 million last July to replace the air-supported membrane roof with fiberglass panels. Now they're considering its destruction, and it'll take millions just to tear down.
Why I Feel YOUNG ...
Visits to Minneapolis put a hop in my step because Sid Hartman, who’ll turn 92 in March, is still pounding out a column for the Star-Tribune. Sid doesn’t travel much any more, but he gets around, and his downtown statue went up on his 90th birthday.
Why I Feel OLD ...
Trying to keep pace with Paul Klee is impossible, even if I was 50 years younger. Klee grabbed an early flight Friday, caught the Timberwolves’ game, stayed with his contacts via nonstop texting, and reached our room at 3 a.m. How does he do it?
Loren Tate writes for The News- Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.