Illinois drops third straight game. After giving up three-point play to force overtime, Illini can't keep pace with Gophers.


 There was a moment when Illinois coach Bruce Weber and his Illini appeared ready to douse all that pessimism back home.

A 21-4 run put the Illini in position for a crucial Big Ten Conference win at Minnesota Saturday, then the Illini gave away a six-point lead down the stretch in a 77-72 overtime loss at Williams Arena. The loss was the third straight for the Illini as they head into what was termed a "breaking point'' in the season by Weber.

The slide not only sent the Illini tumbling down the Big Ten standings to sixth but also gave Weber's critics more ammunition. The Illini led 54-48, thanks to the big run in the second half, but the Illini were unable to hold onto it.

"They're all hard to take,'' Weber said. "When we win, it's hard to take when we have to listen to the critiquing. What's the difference? I'm just so proud of our kids. They battled. You can't say more about our guys. They showed a lot of character. Now we'll see what we're about.

"We've got to see if we can get our kids to respond.''

Illinois played hard -- winning the Matto hustle chart battle 47-29 -- but the Illini couldn't find enough playmakers to help guard Brandon Paul and center Meyers Leonard. Instead of posting a win to cover up a tough loss at the Hall to Wisconsin last weekend, the Illini left town shaking their heads.

"I couldn't be more proud of our kids,'' Weber said. "They played their butts off. It wasn't perfect. We fought. That's all I can ask from my kids.''

Illinois fell to 15-6 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten after Minnesota scored the first four points in overtime. It took a big play by the Gophers just to get it to overtime.

The Illini could have won it in regulation, but Minnesota guard Austin Hollins converted a three-point play with 4 seconds left to tie the game at 64 and force overtime. Hollins drove into the lane with the clock winding down. The foul was the fifth on Leonard, who created contact with his arms.

"All of a sudden, Hollins goes to the basket,'' Weber said. "I'm thinking, Thank you. He goes to the basket, throws up a tough shot. Our kid gets called for a bump. It's a difficult call, a difficult basket, a difficult game to deal with.

"To me it's not a foul. You let everything happen physically in the game, then you call a bump when a guy is trying to avoid somebody.''

The whistle was a dream come true for Hollins, who probably should have fired up a 3-pointer for the chance to tie it.

"I was happy to hear that whistle, then the ball rolled around the rim,'' Hollins said. "I could have shot the three. I drove to the basket. I had to try and get the foul.''

Paul scored 28 points, but he was 9 of 23 from the field and 1 of 8 from the 3-point line. Leonard had 17 points and 13 rebounds, but there wasn't enough help otherwise. Minnesota (16-6, 4-5) avenged an 81-72 double overtime loss at Illinois in late December.

The Illini were 3 of 21 from the 3-point line and lost 16 turnovers. It's becoming harder for these Illini to finish games.

"It's like the Wisconsin game,'' said Illini guard D.J. Richardson. "We were up by four (late) once again. We let a team come back. We have to get stops and do a better job at the end.''

The Illini haven't won since the upset over Ohio State on Jan. 10. It doesn't get any easier moving forward, even though the Illini return home for two games. The Illini host No. 10 Michigan State Tuesday (6 p.m., ESPN) and Northwestern on Super Bowl Sunday.

Then the Illini play four of the next five on the road.

"I thought we were going to grind it out,'' Paul said. "I thought we had it.  We just have to make plays at the end. We have to execute more. We play hard.''

The Illini played a sixth straight game decided by five points or less. They won the first three, then lost the last three.

Austin and reserve guard Chip Armelin had 14 points apiece to lead Minnesota. The Gophers won for the fourth time in the last five games.

NOTES: Former Purdue center Brad Miller and Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill, a pair of old friends, could bring Weber good luck. Miller, a Minnesota Timberwolves reserve, sat behind the Illini bench while wearing an Illinois hat. Kill and Weber first met as coaches at Southern Illinois. . . 

John Supinie can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.

Illinois report card

Front court -- C Meyers Leonard was efficient for most of the game, but he struggled down the stretch. The game turned on his fifth foul. Back court -- B- Brandon Paul was a beast. Like Leonard, he's better at shooting than passing. Paul must cut down on the turnovers. And 3-point shots. Bench -- C- Coach Bruce Weber went to the bench. There wasn't much production there, but the Illini reserves showed some grit. Overall -- C- This would have been a big win to cover up a loss at home. Instead, the Illini suffered a loss that felt like two after playing so hard.