MADISON, Wis. — The script was different, but the result was the same. The Golden Gophers lost another second-half lead and another one-possession game.
There was less self-destruction this time around, which may lessen the sting of the loss for the Gophers (13-15, 7-11). Or perhaps being virtually eliminated from an at-large tournament bid deadens the emotions of another defeat that ended with a desperation heave coming up short at the buzzer — the third time that’s happened to the Gophers in the last 15 days.
Wisconsin’s 71-69 win at Kohl Center sent them to their sixth straight victory and brought them within a game of the conference lead. They are unbeaten since losing to the Gophers 70-52 at Williams Arena on Feb. 5, which was also the last game before Minnesota’s recent tailspin. One of the two teams is on the rise, while the other can’t seem to right the ship. Now 4-11 in single-digit games this season, the Gophers don’t have a problem hanging with their Big Ten foes — only finishing them off.
“We’ve just got to figure out ways to close out these close games,” said big man Daniel Oturu, who finished with a sensational 26 points, 12 rebounds in defeat. “We battle every night. This is probably our fourth or fifth game in a row where the score’s been less than four. Literally continuing to battle, playing smarter down the stretch, staying connected is a really big thing.”
In actuality, it’s three of out five the Gophers have lost by one possession. Minnesota has led in the second half in each of its last five games yet has only gone 1-4 during the critical stretch.
Oturu was at the center of Sunday’s decisive plays. Down 69-68 after Isaiah Ihnen left Aleem Ford sneak free under the basket for a go-ahead dunk, Oturu posted up against former high school rival Nate Reuvers, who he’d dominated on the evening. Reuvers held his ground in a physical matchup and appeared to catch a piece of Oturu’s arm on his shot attempt, but no foul was called. Six seconds later with the Gophers down 71-68, Oturu snagged an offensive rebound on Marcus Carr‘s missed free throw and nearly converted an and-1 that could’ve tied the game, but his layup rolled off the iron.
“I felt like I got fouled on both of those,” Oturu said, “but regardless of whatever I feel, it’s whatever the refs think.
“Just in my mind, he’s bumping me,” Oturu continued, in reference to the first non-call. “I’m kind of faking him, he’s bumping me off balance and stuff like that. I just went up and thought he bumped me a third time, but it’s whatever, though. No call, but regardless, that’s how the game went.”
Minnesota lost a 66-62 lead in the final 1:44, but they also battled back from 12 points behind in the second half. Trailing 49-37, the Gophers embarked on a 12-0 run to tie the score. For the final 9:48 of the game, the differential remained within one possession outside of a 16-second stretch where Minnesota led by four.
Because of the way his team fought back, Pitino was relatively upbeat after the game, four days after he said the Gophers’ 16-point collapse versus Maryland was one of the toughest losses of which he’d been a part. Surely knowing that the Gophers’ only hope of a tournament berth is to win the Big Ten Tournament, Pitino will be looking for progress in the final handful of games. There was certainly growth shown for the Gophers to challenge the Badgers in a building where they almost never lose.
“They made one more play than us, but I thought our guys, to kind of rebound from a devastating loss at home showed great grit, great poise,” Pitino said. “Not a moral victory by any means, but I thought our guys executed down the stretch for the most part. Obviously the one play coming out of the timeout Isaiah lost his man, but he’s a freshman. He’s growing right in front of us, so I’m really excited about his effort.”
The Gophers demonstrated better composure than they did in recent home losses to Iowa, Indiana and Maryland — except at the free-throw line. In six trips to the stripe during the final seven minutes, the Gophers only made both free throws once. From Jan. 26 to Feb. 8, the Gophers shot a collective 77 percent at the line in four games. In the five games since, they’ve combined for a dismal 56.3 percent with no game above 61 percent. Minnesota has 13 games this year where they’ve shot 65 percent or worse at the line.
“Missed free throws down the stretch hurt us certainly,” said Pitino, “but we’ll just keep working on it.”
The tight margins by which Minnesota has lost this season are evidence of how close they are to being tournament bound. Instead, they’ll be fortunate to make the NIT. It’s an unfortunate pothole for a program that, for a while, looked like it would be playing in the Big Dance three years out of four.
It’s fair, to some extent, to point to youth and inexperience. Ihnen’s defensive lapse late in Sunday’s game, for instance, was a classic freshman mistake.
The Gophers seem to be acutely aware of their youth, and while rejecting the notion that it’s holding them back, acknowledging the reality of the situation.
“We have a young team, but that’s not an excuse,” Oturu said. “That’s just reality. We have a lot of guys that have one- to two-year experiences playing in the Big Ten, but that’s not an excuse. We never use that as an excuse.”
The fact that the Gophers have routinely come so close to victory with a youthful team makes it hard to pin that as the sole cause for their late-game issues.
Sunday’s loss was no Maryland repeat, but it continued a predictable trend.