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Wednesday, December 28, 2011
TMA: Gophers show heart, Pitt is in trouble

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

The Morning After is our semi-daily recap of the night's best basketball action. It needs to start getting more sleep.

Illinois 81, Minnesota 72 (double overtime): This double-overtime thriller said more about Minnesota’s heart than Illinois’ talent. The Gophers were down 48-35 midway through the second half. And then, Tubby Smith applied the full-court press and an ‘80s Detroit Pistons defense in the halfcourt. That changed everything.

The Illini were rattled as their lead dwindled. Minnesota completed a 10-0 run after 7-footer Elliott Eliason forced a Meyers Leonard turnover that Andre Hollins converted on the other end to cut Illinois’ lead to three.

With a chance to put their foot on Minnesota’s throat, the Illini relented against the Gophers’ attack. They’re third in the Big Ten in turnovers per game (13.9) and they committed 21 Tuesday.

Julian Welch had a chance to extend Minnesota’s lead late in regulation but he missed the front-end of a one-and one and Leonard hit a pair of three throws after he was fouled. The first overtime was shaky for both teams. Both had a shot to avoid a second extra period, but Welch missed an easy layup and Sam Maniscalco took an ill-advised three-pointer with time on the clock.

But the Illini pulled away in the second overtime. So what? The bigger issue is that they nearly blew a 13-point lead in home conference game against a team that’s playing without its best player (Trevor Mbakwe is out for the year with ACL injury).

I came away from this game impressed, again, by Minnesota’s tenacity. The Gophers are young at most positions. They had no business putting up that kind of a fight in Champaign, Ill., the first Big Ten road game for a chunk of the players on that roster. If the Gophers can steal a few away from Minneapolis, they’re going to be OK in the Big Ten.

But where’s Illinois’ edge? I think Leonard is a stud and he’s surrounded by talent. The Illini, however, need to develop a little bravado so that they take advantage of teams when they have the opportunity. Didn’t happen against the Gophers. They’ll pay for similar lapses in the future.

Notre Dame 72, No. 22 Pitt 59: The postgame buzz of this upset centered on one question: “What’s wrong with Pitt?” The Panthers suffered their second consecutive loss, their third of the season, in the Big East opener for both squads.

Two of the losses came at home against a pair of midmajors -- Wagner (Friday) and Long Beach State (Nov. 16). The Panthers had won 58 consecutive home games entering the loss to the 49ers.

In Pitt’s third loss Tuesday, Notre Dame took over in the second half. The Fighting Irish connected on 18 of 25 shots in the second half. They shot 50 percent from the field, including a 5-for-8 mark from the three-point line after halftime. Sophomore guard Alex Dragicevich (he scored 17 of his career-high 22 points in the second half) played as 1993 Dan Majerle.

So the Panthers fell to a hot Notre Dame squad that treated the bucket like … a big ‘ol bucket. It rarely missed late. Plus, the Fighting Irish have won 28 consecutive home games.

But Pitt entered the season amid Final Four talk. They returned All-America candidate Ashton Gibbs and attracted a recruiting class anchored by Canadian standout Khem Birch. Right now, however, they’re not even a Top-25 team. They were 1-for-14 from the three-point line Tuesday. They hit 2 of 15 threes in their 59-54 loss to Wagner Friday.

Tray Woodall’s groin/abdominal injury was a major setback for a squad with limited backcourt depth. Woodall returned Tuesday, but he failed to score. Gibbs played a ton of minutes in Woodall’s absence and that seemed to wear him down, something Dixon said he feared. Birch’s decision to leave the program a few weeks ago didn’t help, either.

But Pitt’s problems are extensive. The Panthers possess the 159th-ranked defense in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency ratings. They entered the week with the Big East’s worst turnover margin.

If the Panthers don’t correct their problems soon, they’re going to end up in a battle just to make the Big Dance.

Everywhere else: Wisconsin welcomed Nebraska to the Big Ten with a 64-40 whipping. Ryan Evans went 9 for 11 from the field and scored 22 points. The most promising stat line for the Badgers, however, was Jordan Taylor’s 15 points and five assists. That’s the kind of production they’ll need from the preseason All-America going forward.  … Georgia needed overtime to dismiss a 4-9 Winthrop squad 92-86... Jordan Tolbert recorded 27 points in Texas Tech’s 74-58 win over CS-Bakersfield … BYU easily defeated CS San Marcos, which sounds like some party school on a Spanish island. The Cougars hit 50 percent of their shots in the 79-51 win. Bad day for the Cal State system, I guess.