Down nine points with under two minutes to play, things finally boiled over for Richard Pitino.
All season, the 34-year-old, soon-to-be Big Ten Coach of the Year watched as opposing coaches overheated while getting frustrated by the resilient Gophers. But in Pitino’s win-or-go-home March Madness debut as a head coach, the tables turned. It was his own outburst that led to a technical foul, a pair of Middle Tennessee free throws and a realization that his first NCAA Tournament win would have to wait. “I yelled at the ref, and he gave me a technical,” Pitino said. “I deserved it.”
It was a fitting end to an undisciplined performance by the normally poised Gophers.
Minnesota shot 29 percent from 3-point range, got outrebounded 37-24 — and 11-4 on the offensive glass — and committed a litany of careless fouls in their 81-72 loss to the Blue Raiders, ending a heartening bounce-back season with a record of 24-10.
But the final act left a sour taste.
The Maroon and Gold fell behind by as many as 17 in the second half, then battled back to get within four before Middle Tennessee senior Reggie Upshaw flipped a switch and took the game over.
Oh, how the Gophers could have used a steadying senior on the floor. Akeem Springs, who’d filled that role all season, sat in a suit and tie on the bench, and without him the Gophers struggled — on one end to handle the Blue Raiders’ zone defense; on the other allowing over 80 points for the second consecutive game without Springs in the lineup. “We just couldn’t get stops,” said Pitino.
Nobody knows whether Springs’ presence would have eased the nerves of Nate Mason. The First Team All-Big Ten guard, playing injured in the second half, sputtered throughout most of the game and finished with a season-low five points. With a hip injury nagging, Mason’s relentless slashing and finishing ability that enabled him to score 23 points in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal all but disappeared. The game officially began to slip away from the Gophers after Mason missed a hurried 3 with Minnesota down 69-61, then fouled JaCorey Williams out of frustration to send him to the foul line. “When you can’t sub, it’s really, really hard, because he needed a break,” said Pitino, ruing the team’s lack of depth.
Poorly-timed fouls were a theme for the Gophers all afternoon against the plucky Blue Raiders. Reggie Lynch picked up a pair of careless fouls that showed a lack of situational awareness, including one in the first half that sent him to the pine for over eight minutes and another early in the second half that precipitated Middle Tennessee’s big run.
Jordan Murphy and Eric Curry also had four fouls in the game to complete the foul trouble trifecta for the Gophers bigs. When Minnesota’s forwards played aggressively this season, it was nearly unbeatable, but foul trouble was always its Achilles heel, and any worthy NCAA Tournament foe was bound to exploit it. With Lynch, Curry and Murphy neutered due to fouls, Middle Tennessee started pounding away in the paint and received little resistance.
Middle Tennessee put on a clinic in class as it proved Vegas correct in making it a pregame favorite.
The Blue Raiders were a team with NCAA Tournament equity; the Gophers weren’t. And it showed. When Minnesota jumped out 7-0, Middle Tennessee answered with a 7-0 spurt of its own. When the Gophers went on a 14-2 run to get close late, the Blue Raiders scored 10 of the next 13. “Probably gives you a little bit more confidence in you were [in the tournament before],” said Pitino. “You just know how to deal with things.”
Middle Tennessee put on a clinic in class as it proved Vegas correct in making it a pregame favorite. The Blue Raiders channeled their past Big Dance experience and leaned on their seniors to make big plays. The Gophers and their coach had no prior Big Dance experience, nor did they have any seniors to pry them from their rut.
Minnesota swallowed a bitter pill on Thursday. Not only did it lose to the 12 seed in the South Region, but it caved to an even greater foe: Pressure. Fortunately, as the whole team returns next season, they’ll have a full year to learn how to overcome it. “It’s a pretty high-intensity game,” said Murphy. “We’ve played in games like this before, but it’s a different time of year when teams are going to give you their best shot no matter what. I think our guys are going to take away a lot from this whole experience.”