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Still feeling the sting, Gophers seek to avenge worst loss of the season vs. Illinois

By Andy Greder

St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Since their worst loss this season, the Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball team has rebounded with two wins and a one-possession loss on the road against a top-ranked foe.

But fallout remains from Minnesota’s complete dismantling from then-last-place Illinois two weeks ago.

“I don’t think there’s a person in our locker room that has forgot that loss,” senior forward Jordan Murphy said after the U knocked off then-No. 19 Iowa 92-87 on Sunday, Jan. 27. “Obviously, it stings.”

There were a multitude of calamities for Minnesota in its humbling 95-68 loss to the Illini in Champaign on Jan. 16.

The Gophers allowed the Illini to shoot 56 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point line. Illinois, winless in the Big Ten at the time, led by as many as 36 points in the second half and would have eclipsed 100 if they didn’t empty their bench late in the game.

The Illini led Minnesota in rebounds (39-26), points in the paint (52-38), points off turnovers (28-9) and second-chance points (20-11).

“Our transition defense was really bad, our half-court defense was bad,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said Tuesday, Jan. 29. “I think it’s gotten a lot better since that game.”

The Gophers (15-5, 5-4 Big Ten) will have a chance to avenge that loss when Illinois (6-14, 2-7) comes to Williams Arena at 8 p.m. this evening The U said the game will be played as schedule despite the extreme cold weather outside the Barn.

“We really want this one on Wednesday,” Murphy said. “And obviously we are going to do everything we can to try to get it.”

The Illini also can say they’ve shown improvement since their last meeting with the Gophers. While they lost on road to Iowa and at home to Wisconsin, the Illini doubled their conference win total with a 78-67 upset of then-No. 13 Maryland on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.

Like in their victory over Gophers, the Illini had a similar ingredients for success against the Terrapins, with huge advantages in points off turnovers, fast-break points and bench production.

Given the disparities around the basket in their first game, the potential absence of Gophers freshman center Daniel Oturu for a second straight game could loom larger. He missed the Hawkeyes game with a left shoulder injury. Pitino said Oturu would practice Tuesday and be a game-time decision Wednesday.

If Oturu can’t play, Illini center Giorgi Bezhanishvili will have one fewer U player standing in his way. Not like it mattered much against the Minnesota two weeks ago, when he produced 20 points and eight rebounds.

“He physically took us to the woodshed,” Pitino said. “I think he got 10 points off of rebounds. He was just really, really physical with his moves, so we have to be tougher down there.”

Prior to Oturu’s injury, the Gophers switched to sophomore Eric Curry as the starting center. They also went with Curry at the start of the second half of their 65-64 victory over Penn State on Jan. 19 and at the start of the game n the 59-57 road loss to No. 5 Michigan last Tuesday.

Oturu’s absence against the Hawkeyes created more playing time for backup Matz Stockman, who was a game-high plus-12 on Sunday.

llinois routinely forces steals and wins the turnover margin; the Illini are among the Big Ten’s best in both categories. But overall, they’re the opposite of a top Big Ten defense — dead last in scoring defense (74.9) and field goal percentage defense (47.1).

But like its place in the conference standings, Illinois was a wake-up call for the Gophers two weeks ago.

“I think any time you lose like that on the road and you play like that, it opens your eyes that you have to compete in this league,” Pitino said. “If you don’t, you are going to get beat.”

Senior guard Dupree McBrayer said their recommitment has been seen behind the scenes.

“I think it starts in practice and we are getting after it,” McBrayer said. “… Showing that we want to get better on the defensive end and doing the little things that it takes to win in this league. It’s definitely showing.”

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