MINNEAPOLIS — Richard Pitino and his Minnesota men’s basketball teams could have buttoned up after Saturday’s 94-63 drubbing at the hands of No. 5 Illinois.
The Gophers (13-10, 6-10) could have offered brief comments about how the Illini (16-5, 12-3) were the better team while otherwise trying to put behind a lopsided loss that served as Minnesota’s second at home in 15 games.
Instead, Pitino and Co. lauded Brad Underwood’s program for walking into Williams Arena with a six-game win streak and departing with a significant addition to that stretch of success.
“They’re one of the best teams in the country, and I think that showed (Saturday),” Pitino said of Illinois, which defeated Minnesota 92-65 on Dec. 15 in Champaign. “They have a blend of talent and veterans. ... They’re that good.”
Much was made in the Gophers’ postgame Zoom call about their banged-up roster.
Starter Gabe Kalscheur, the group’s third-leading scorer, underwent surgery Friday on a broken finger, while 7-footer Liam Robbins was slowed by an injured ankle. Pitino said guard Both Goch is dealing with a foot ailment as well.
Robbins and Goch played 13 and 19 minutes, respectively, on Saturday as Kalscheur watched the action from the sideline in street clothes.
“Those are our two best defenders,” Pitino said of Kalscheur and Robbins. “You take two starters off of any team and you’re not going to be as good. But, nevertheless, we can certainly be better than what we were (Saturday).”
Minnesota forward Eric Curry echoed his coach’s sentiment.
“(The Illini) did exactly what we didn’t want them to do, which was their strength — which was transition,” Curry said. “We tried to keep a positive attitude in the halftime, but we’ve got to have a sense of pride. We can’t let people come into Williams Arena and do us like that.”
Illinois boasted 31 fast-break points to Minnesota’s eight, and the Gophers’ 18 turnovers didn’t help their desire to slow the Illini attack.
“If you turn it over, they’re going to turn it into a touchdown,” Pitino said. “They were really, really good. Give them credit. And, obviously, we really broke down there.”
That breakdown arguably commenced in the first half’s final minute.
A Kofi Cockburn blocked shot with 39 seconds remaining turned into an Ayo Dosunmu layup at the other end. Then, on a Minnesota inbounds play with 4 seconds on the clock, Trent Frazier swiped Tre’ Williams pass and converted a buzzer-beating three-pointer from just inside halfcourt.
“Turnovers really just killed us, pretty much, down the stretch going into the second half,” said forward Brandon Johnson, who provided the Gophers with 12 points. “I believe we fought good in the first half, but second half it wasn’t there.”
Johnson said the difficulty in facing the Illini when they’re clicking like they did on Saturday is “everybody on the team complements each other well.”
“They have Kofi, obviously, in the middle. That’s a hard guy to stop, to say the least,” Johnson said. “Ayo’s a great player, and they’ve got role guys on their team that are perfect at doing their job. ... That’s a great team over there.”