The Minnesota Golden Gophers are running out of time and running out of answers.
Wednesday night’s game against the No. 9 Maryland Terrapins had the makings of a signature win to put Minnesota back in the NCAA Tournament bubble discussion. It felt like a replay of the Gophers’ 2016 upset of Maryland — also a late-season win over a highly-ranked team.
For a time during Wednesday’s second half, the biggest concern was whether Minnesota’s students would storm the court. But after a cataclysmic finish, fans were merely storming out of Williams Arena grumbling about another missed opportunity in the Big Ten.
“That was as difficult a game as I’ve been a part of,” head coach Richard Pitino said postgame.
Of Minnesota’s three consecutive home losses, the latest was the most improbable. The Gophers lost a 16-point halftime advantage, a 14-point lead with 8:41 remaining, an eight-point lead with 2:06 to go and a four-point lead with 18 seconds left. Minnesota missed three of four free throws in the final 40 seconds — two by Gabe Kalscheur, one by Marcus Carr — including the front end of two 1-and-1 opportunities, giving Maryland chance after chance. The Big Ten leaders finally cashed in as Darryl Morsell knocked down a tricky 3 with 1.9 seconds left to give the Terrapins a 74-73 lead. Daniel Oturu‘s contested last-ditch effort came up short amidst pleas for a foul call, setting off a wild Maryland celebration.
The Terps led the game for a total of 24 seconds.
For Minnesota, this comes on the heels of an eight-point blown lead versus Iowa, where the Gophers didn’t score in the final five minutes, and a 10-point blown lead versus Indiana, where the Gophers were outscored 40-25 in the second half.
“Different levels of devastation,” Pitino said. “It’s been very, very difficult. We could have won all three of them. So I feel for our guys, they’re playing hard. I’ve just got to get them back and get them positive again.”
Pitino has been transparent about the damage the last three losses have done to his team’s postseason hopes. Heading into their matchup with the No. 9 team, the thinking was that the Gophers likely had to win out in the regular season to have a shot at an at-large bid. Wednesday’s impossible defeat brought about a sense of resignation.
“Kind of running out of time here,” said Pitino.
— Sam Ekstrom (@SamEkstrom) February 27, 2020
The Gophers’ lack of late-game composure has spoiled three performances otherwise worthy of a victory. Missed free throws have been a root cause. Against Iowa, Oturu missed the front end of a 1-and-1 that could’ve tied the game in the closing seconds. Against Indiana, Minnesota missed five second-half free throws. Against Maryland, the foibles continued.
The misses in the final minute by Carr and Kalscheur were uncharacteristic, considering they hit at 72 and 75 percent, respectively, but seemed to fit with the trend of Minnesota appearing worn down late in games.
That theory has been manifested in the form of poor rebounding and turnovers, which also afflicted the Gophers Wednesday night. Maryland’s Jalen Smith converted a putback dunk with 18 seconds left to trim the Gophers’ lead to two, just before Kalscheur’s missed throw. The Terrapins had 20 offensive rebounds on the night.
But part of the reason the Terrapins climbed back into the game were careless Gophers possessions, two of which ended up in uncontested dunks off ill-advised passes, which allowed the Terrapins to pull within four at the 5:29 mark.
“They were turning up the heat,” Pitino said. “They had to because we were up. We had some inexplicable turnovers in the second half, but other guys have got to come to it because they’re really overplaying.”
The Gophers did not make players available to the media after the loss — a loss that spoiled some terrific individual performances. Daniel Oturu had one of his finest games with 28 points and 11 rebounds on 10 of 13 shooting, most of which came from the mid-range or perimeter. Carr concluded with 19 points and seven assists, breaking Arriel McDonald‘s single-season assist record. He played the full 40 minutes for the eighth time this year in a regulation game.
The disappointment over the team’s last three home games is only compounded by three impressive first halves that have given the Gophers halftime leads. Minnesota knows how to start but not how to finish. They were off to an 18-6 advantage Wednesday with five made 3s before the first TV timeout, a continuation of their hot shooting in Sunday’s pick-me-up win at Northwestern. They went into the locker room a scalding 57 percent from the floor.
Yet the narrative after this one was not about a team with revived NCAA Tournament aspirations. It centered around a team without poise, and a coach potentially on the hot seat.
“I think that you try to constantly, when you’re in this profession, you think about your team, you think about your family, you try to stay confident,” Pitino said. “Anytime you lose close games — you’ve got to evaluate every single game — but I’m very confident in what we’re doing here. I think our guys are really good kids and getting better. We can’t worry about that, we’ve got to move onto the next one.”
With two consecutive road games coming up at Wisconsin and Indiana, the Gophers will find out how much fortitude they have as the season slips away.