NIT bound: Men’s hoops loses without much fight

by Anthony Maggio

CHICAGO – The dancing shoes can stay in storage.

After a 76-64 loss to 10th-seeded Northwestern on Thursday, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team has now done everything in its power to keep the NCAA tournament committee at bay.

The Gophers have lost five straight games, and a loss to a Wildcats team with only three Big Ten wins this season likely secures a spot for Minnesota in its third straight National Invitational Tournament.

“I hate the NIT,” guard Maurice Hargrow said. “No disrespect to the people who run the NIT, but I hate the NIT. I think we’re a better ballclub than that. But we deserve what we get.

“Hopefully they’ll let us in there.”

The Gophers needed to win this game, and by a convincing margin. Squeaking by Northwestern wasn’t the confidence boost the Gophers were looking for heading into a quarterfinal matchup with Illinois.

But Minnesota need not worry about a rematch with the Illini. The seventh-seeded Gophers showed no fight, no energy, no emotion and no heart, bowing out to a Northwestern team that looked like it was the squad fighting for an NCAA tournament berth.

“To say this game was a disappointment is an understatement,” coach Dan Monson said. “Our performance was unacceptable. They were the aggressors on both ends of the floor.”

But why? How come Minnesota – a team with high aspirations throughout the year and with the entire season hanging in the balance – played its softest game of the season against a smaller, less talented team?

“It’s really confusing,” guard Kevin Burleson said. “I don’t understand how we didn’t play our best.”

No other Gophers player could explain it either. For the second straight game, Minnesota withered in the second half, playing less like a team with every possession.

The Gophers looked more intimidated and more panicked with every Northwestern basket. Mentally, Minnesota just wasn’t tough enough to come back from its second-half deficit.

“They would hit a shot and we would be like, ‘Now what are we going to do,’ instead of thinking, ‘Let’s go get a basket and stop them the next time,’ ” Hargrow said. “That’s been our downfall throughout the entire season. We act like one play decides who’s going to win or lose the game.”

Minnesota’s mental lapses come as no surprise, even though the Gophers beat Northwestern twice this season by an average of 14.5 points. Minnesota’s confidence was apparently destroyed by the four-game losing streak it rode into the tournament.

The Gophers have argued they weren’t mentally fragile, but when it came down to proving it, Minnesota couldn’t deliver.

“A lot of the players said a lot of the right things on Monday to try and get back in the right frame of mind,” Monson said. “But obviously we didn’t believe it. We didn’t play confident today. We didn’t play to win.”

As a result, Minnesota’s dancing shoes have another year to collect dust.