MINNEAPOLIS — The pressures seem to be getting under the skin of the Illinois basketball team. Nerves are fraying. Tensions are rising.
After Saturday's 77-72 overtime loss to Minnesota, Bruce Weber suggested that win or lose — he can't really win.
"They're all hard to take," Weber said after Illinois suffered its third straight loss. "When we win it's hard to take (because) we have to listen to the critiquing. What's the difference?"
Frustrations reached a fever pitch after the Gophers earned payback in front of 14,625 at Williams Arena. Illinois (15-6, 4-4 Big Ten) had stolen their first meeting, 71-62 in double overtime at the Assembly Hall in December. Meanwhile, after a 4-1 Big Ten start, Illinois is spiraling the wrong way with the toughest part of the schedule still to come.
Thanks to a 15-2 run, the Illini had built a 58-53 lead with 2:20 left in regulation. But the lead fizzled and the Gophers (16-6, 4-5) tore through overtime for their fourth win in five games.
Weber's beef was with a foul whistled on Meyers Leonard. Down three points, Minnesota guard Austin Hollins took the unorthodox approach and drove to the basket. He made a contested layup, drew a whistle on Leonard and made the free throw with four seconds left. A last-ditch three-pointer from Illinois came up short and overtime ensued.
Was it a foul?
Weber didn't think so. Or, if it was, the coach wondered how a "bump," as he called it, could be whistled after 39 minutes, 56 seconds of wrestling that doubled as basketball.
"Difficult call, difficult basket, difficult game to deal with," the Illinois coach said. "You battle all game and you're physical and you let people grab all over and you get him with a hip (check) at the end. ... But we should've done better with other parts of the game."
"I was just happy to hear the whistle," Hollins said. "Then to see the ball rolling around on the rim, I was just happy it went in."
Saturday's meltdown, however, is the small picture. In the big picture, the Illini are quite average: 4-4 this season in the Big Ten and 48-48 in the conference A.D. (After Dee).
Saturday's defeat left the locker room numb. Still, players and coaches promised these Illini aren't finished yet. That remains to be seen.
"It was kind of like the Wisconsin game (being up by four and losing a late lead)," D.J. Richardson said, adding, "We really didn't deserve the one back at home (against Minnesota)."
"I still think we're the better team," Brandon Paul said after scoring a game-high 28 points. "We might see them down the road."
Give the Illini this much, at least: they won't go quietly. The Matto chart read like this: Illinois 47, Minnesota 29. Unfortunately for Illinois, hustle points don't count as real points.
"We fought. That's all I can ask from my kids," Weber said. "I'm very proud of them. I'm proud of my staff for what they did tonight."
Leonard scored his seventh double-double with 17 points and 13 rebounds. The big man wasn't available for the overtime period; the foul Weber questioned was Leonard's fifth.
"That's huge. There's no doubt," Weber said. "He's one of the best players in the league."
Leading into the game, coaches said the Illini enjoyed one of their better weeks of practice. And The Barn had been a place of healing, Illinois having won nine of its last 10 trips to the ol' gem. All of that was just talk and useless stats as the team slumped to the locker room with No. 10 Michigan State rumbling into the Assembly Hall on Tuesday.
"Now we'll see what we're all about," Weber said. "Tubby (Smith) got his kids to respond. Now we'll see if we can respond."