Gophers manhandled in 76-53 loss to Illinois, fall to 1-2 in Big Ten

Gophers guard EJ Stephens handles the ball in Minnesota's loss to Illinois Tuesday night at Williams Arena. ((credit: University of Minnesota Athletics) / Supplied)

Manhandled and overpowered, the University of Minnesota men's basketball team was rudely welcomed back from a 13-day break with a 76-53 loss to Illinois Tuesday night at Williams Arena.

Both the Gophers (10-2, 1-2) and Illini hadn't played since Dec. 22. For Minnesota, it was because their last non-conference opponent, Alcorn State, had to cancel playing the Gophers due to COVID-19 concerns.

Illinois had 10 players test positive last week, and canceled their non-conference finale against Florida A&M. The Gophers and Illinois were scheduled to play Sunday, but it was pushed back two days to allow the Illini to clear COVID-19 protocols. They were more than ready to get back on the court.

"I had no idea what our conditioning would be like. You’ve got a 10-1 team and you’ve got them in their home, a basketball team that’s been excelling on the offensive end at a very high level. Our guys rose to that challenge tonight," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.

The Illini physically dominated Minnesota, led by preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Kofi Cockburn. The 7-foot, 285-pound center had a game-high 29 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in 24 minutes.

"Anybody that can figure out how to guard that guy, let me know. You try to battle for post position early, often, late, he’s a different cat," Gophers’ coach Ben Johnson said after the loss. "We were going to live with Kofi’s tough 2s, we just wanted to try to make them a little bit tougher than probably they were. Kofi is going to get his numbers, the guy is a first-teamer. Being that size and being that talented, he gets you deep like that there’s not a lot you can do."

Jacob Grandison added 11 points, and Alfonso Plummer had 10 points for Illinois.

The Gophers were out-rebounded 52-26 for the game, gave up 13 offensive rebounds and were out-scored 42-18 in the paint. Much of that was Cockburn’s dominance and physicality inside.

"There’s certain nights Kofi feels like he can just overpower people, and he has that ability to do that. Glad he’s on our team, wearing our uniform," Underwood said.

The Williams Arena crowd was slow to arrive, with thousands of open seats at tip-off. Minnesota's energy was worse, as the Illini jumped out to a 13-5 start. Illinois had a 31-15 lead in the first half before the Gophers went on a 13-4 run to cut it to 35-28. The Illini closed the half on a 6-2 run to lead 41-30 at the half.

"I just thought this was the first time all year that we just didn’t have it, whatever it is. It just was a weird vibe out there from start to finish, and we could just never get out of the funk that we were in," Johnson said. "I don’t know what the funk was, but that’s what we’ve got to figure out because we’ve got to learn from it.

Cockburn took over in the second half, scoring 11 of the first 13 points as Illinois built a 58-34 lead. Illinois led by as many as 28 in the second half.

Minnesota shot just 35 percent from the field in the loss, and 3-of-15 (20 percent) from the perimeter. Eric Curry and Jamison Battle led the Gophers with 10 points each. Payton Willis finished with nine points after not scoring in the first half. Willis, Curry, Battle and E.J. Stephens went a combined 15-of-42 from the field in the loss.

The Gophers are 0-2 in Big Ten play at Williams Arena this season, and head to Assembly Hall to face Indiana on Sunday.

"We have a saying that you either win or learn, you don’t really look at it as a loss. We’re definitely going to watch film, get back in the lab and learn from this game," Gophers’ guard E.J. Stephens said.