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Ice-cold start plagues Gophers in close loss at Utah

Minnesota has dropped three straight to tough opponents.

Well, maybe that’s why it hadn’t happened in 63 years. The Gophers faced their third power conference opponent away from home in the season’s first four games for the first time since 1956 and got the same result as the first two, falling 73-69 to the Utah Utes in Salt Lake City.

Minnesota spotted Utah, coming off a record-breaking 143-49 thumping of Mississippi Valley State, a 16-0 lead to start the game and couldn’t recover, but battled to the final whistle. They’re now 1-3 on the season, following losses to Oklahoma in Sioux Falls and at Butler.

Daniel Oturu again led the Gophers with 21 points and 18 rebounds, scoring the team’s first ten points and 16 of their 33 before halftime to keep Minnesota in the game. Marcus Carr added 15 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists.

Utah’s length and depth proved too much to overcome, with Timmy Allen’s 19 points and 10 rebounds pacing four starters scoring in double digits while the Utes’ rotation of guys listed at 7-4, 7-0, 6-10, 6-9, and 6-8 overmatched Minnesota’s frontcourt.

The Gophers didn’t quit, though, fighting for rebounds, limiting turnovers, and drawing fouls to hang around before making huge runs to cut the deficit to just one twice, at 39-38 and 50-49. But the Gophers were once again plagued by poor shooting and an inability to convert from the free-throw line.

Minnesota ultimately shot just 35% overall (26-74) and 36% from three (12-33), and finished with only 12 free-throw attempts, with only Oturu and Carr getting to the line. Oturu was 3-4, but Carr was 2-8, missing three – the last on purpose – in the final ten seconds.

Among the high points:

  • Bench production. The Gophers’ bench finally showed up, finishing with 18 points after scoring just 19 (15 against Cleveland State, 4 against Oklahoma, 0 against Butler) in the first three games combined. Alihan Demir, who came off the bench before starting the second half, shot just 4-16 (!) but finished with 9 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals, looking much closer to the all-conference player he was at Drexel, on both sides of the court, than the hesitant player he’s been thus far. Tre’ Williams hit two silky smooth threes. But perhaps most important, highly-touted 6-9 freshman Isaiah Ihnen made his season debut, giving minutes at the four and flashing his range from downtown for his first college points.
  • Limiting turnovers. Similarly, the team finally held onto the ball, finishing with just five turnovers, one of which was a fluky play Kalscheur dribbled out of bounds, and just one in the second half. Oturu, perhaps the worst offender thus far, had none.
  • The hometown crew. The compliments for Oturu are starting to lose meaning, but he was phenomenal again, finishing with 21 points, 18 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 steals, 2 assists, on 0 turnovers, swinging crosscourt passes out of double teams, and setting good screens. He was quiet in the second half, but Gabe Kalscheur was not, breaking out of an 11-36 shooting slump with 11 points after the break on 4-6 shooting. If anyone forgot how good Kalscheur was in the NCAA tournament last year, Friday night offered a reminder.

At the end of the day, losing to three tough teams over this stretch isn’t ideal. One win would’ve been adequate and two would’ve been good. But three close losses for a young team figuring out a new style of play on the road with more-or-less an entirely new rotation is nothing to hang your head on. Come Big Ten season, the bumps and bruises picked up over the non-conference schedule might very well form the foundation of a solid team.

The next part of the season starts Thursday, when the Gophers host Central Michigan at the Barn.

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