The Gophers continued their freefall on Sunday, losing another heartbreaker after leading late in the second half, this time falling 71-69 to the Wisconsin Badgers in Madison, preventing a border battle sweep for the first time since 2009 and all but ending their chances of making the NCAA tournament.
The defeat is the team’s fifth in six games since beating the Badgers 70-52 on February 5, and drops them to 7-11 in the Big Ten and 13-15 overall.
Down 49-37 midway through the second half, Minnesota reeled off a 12-0 run in just over three minutes to tie the game and ultimately led 66-64 with just over a minute left and 68-67 with 47 seconds left.
But Brevin Pritzl buried a three with 56 seconds remaining off of an offensive rebound to go up 67-66, and after a Daniel Oturu jumper at the other end, Aleem Ford used a backdoor cut for a wide-open dunk with 30 seconds left to put the Badgers up 69-68, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Daniel Oturu led Minnesota with 26 points and 12 rebounds, missing a shot with 12 seconds left after he was hit on the arm, and Marcus Carr added 21 points, 13 of which came after the break. But Minnesota shot just 4-19 from three and missed ten free throws.
Maple Grove alum Brad Davison led Wisconsin with 20 points.
“They made one more play than us,” said Minnesota coach Richard Pitino after the game, who nonetheless praised the play of his underclass-heavy team that battled to the end. “We fought our butts off – just didn’t come out on top.”
Unfortunately, it’s a theme that’s been far too common this season.
The Gophers had success against Northwestern, their last win, and more broadly this year, by playing through Oturu, maintaining good ball movement to create open looks, and winning the battle on the boards. Against Wisconsin, they played through Oturu, whose 26 and 12 represented his seventeenth double-double of the year, and held a 41-33 rebounding advantage.
But their ball movement wasn’t as crisp, finishing with just six assists against nine turnovers, and too many missed shots coupled with an inability to close late again doomed them:
Free-throw shooting. Four days after struggling mightily from the line in a one-point loss to Maryland, it was the same story against Wisconsin. In the first half, the Gophers got to the line a grand total of zero times. They had a ridiculous 23 attempts times in the second, but shot just 13-23, with Carr, Oturu, and Alihan Demir combining to go 1-6 in the final 3:46. Carr – who finished 3-6 – and Oturu – who finished 8-11 – missed three in the final six seconds.
Three-point shooting. After going 3-11 from three in the second half against Maryland (after a 7-13 start), the Gophers came out and shot 4-19 today, with freshman Isaiah Ihnen the only player with more than one, finishing 2-7. Carr and Payton Willis both were 0-2, while Gabe Kalscheur was 1-3 and Tre’ Williams was 1-2. All four of those guards are good shooters from beyond the arc, and all made plays in other aspects of the game, but – as has been made very clear throughout the season – it’s incredibly difficult to win as a three-heavy team when the entire backcourt largely fails to convert their attempts from long-range.
Failure to finish. What else can be said? It’s the fourth time in five games the Gophers have lost after leading in the second half, all of which came against probable NCAA tournament teams, the last two of which they held a lead with 30 seconds or less. There are a multitude of reasons for these losses – missed foul calls, bad luck, fatigue – but at the end of the day they simply haven’t gotten it done.
And it’s too bad that’s the case, because this is a genuinely talented Gophers team. Oturu played like an all-American yet again. Carr was phenomenal in the second half, scoring his 13 on 6-7 shooting. Ihnen flashed the talent that made him a four-star recruit, finishing with six points and a career-high 10 rebounds, seven of which came on the offensive end. And the team has held its own against the top of the country’s best conference.
“We compete with everybody in this league,” said Oturu. “There’s no doubt in my mind, I feel like we can beat anybody in this league. We’re just going through it right now. But at the same time, we’ve got a good group of guys, we’re gonna come back tomorrow, work hard, and focus on the next team ahead.”
That next team is Indiana, where Minnesota will travel on Wednesday. They’ll end the regular season next Sunday against Nebraska. If they win both games, they’ll finish 9-11 in the Big Ten – the same record last year’s NCAA tournament team had.