After suffering their fourth straight loss in devastating fashion at Nebraska, the Minnesota Golden Gophers are running out of time to correct course.
With six games left in the Big Ten season, Minnesota (16-9, 6-8) is in need of a winning streak — much like they had during their last NCAA Tournament season of 2016-17.
“There were five of us on the team now that went through that,” said redshirt sophomore Eric Curry, “so we just tell all the guys, ‘We’re good.’ Because we were good two years ago, so we’re just still locked in. We’re fine. We’re as talented as ever.”
Those Gophers lost five straight games in the first half of the conference season — four by single digits and two against ranked teams — before running off eight in a row. Their current slump includes a pair of single-digit losses and two defeats against ranked opponents.
Head coach Richard Pitino often talks about making “winning plays” at the end of the games — sometimes things as little as a box out or an offensive rebound. In their recent drought, the crunch time plays have gone the other way. Minnesota had a hard time rebounding the ball late in a loss at Purdue that started the losing streak, struggled mightily from the field in a five-point home loss against Wisconsin and came up one stop short against Nebraska, who hit two free throws with 1.1 seconds remaining following a controversial foul call against Amir Coffey.
The Gophers also lost a game at the buzzer earlier in the conference season to Michigan where they allowed a second-chance opportunity to create the winning shot.
“You think about it now, Michigan — a rebound,” said Curry. “The game before (Nebraska) — a rebound. Just the little things.”
“We’ve lost two games at the buzzer,” said Pitino, “with Nebraska and Michigan. We beat Penn State because they miss a shot. This is a possessions league, where everything’s heightened. It’s big crowds, national TV, a lot at stake, so I don’t ever sense that any of these games are not important.”
How did the Gophers mount a winning streak two years ago? By winning the tight games. They defeated Iowa in double overtime, Michigan in overtime and Indiana by one point on Akeem Springs’ putback at the end of the regulation.
Curry was part of the group that resurrected that season along with Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer. Murphy said before the Nebraska game that teammates had come to the team’s veterans asking about how they put together that memorable stretch.
“It’s important when you have guys in your locker room who understand what this is about,” said Pitino. “Not every team, but a lot of teams, like I said before, have been pronounced dead.”
Back in 2017, the Gophers held a catalyzing players-only meeting that revolved around playing better defense. That may have to be where this year’s team starts if it can muster up a winning streak. Pitino liked the way the group improved Wednesday at Nebraska despite the loss.
“We try to focus a lot on not necessarily the result, and the result didn’t end in our favor last game,” he said, “but I think that our guys played well enough to win in the Big Ten, which is not easy to do.”
Indiana awaits on Saturday, losers of nine out of 10. Though Pitino insists he’s not looking ahead, the Gophers desperately need the right result against the Hoosiers to keep their NCAA hopes afloat.
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