Gophers end season on a nine game skid

Zach Eisendrath

>CHICAGO – It wasn’t the homecoming that interim Minnesota men’s basketball coach Jim Molinari was hoping for.

Molinari, who grew up in Glen Ellyn, Ill., approximately a half hour away from United Center, likely coached his last game with the Gophers Thursday afternoon, as his team fell 49-40 to Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

Minnesota’s tumultuous season, which included former coach Dan Monson accepting a buyout in late November, and saw two players – juniors Engen Nurumbi and Limar Wilson – leave the program, now concludes with the Gophers ending their year on a season-high nine-game losing streak.

With little hesitation, Molinari said, after the game, that he would like to be a head coach again next season, throwing out the idea of possibly having Molinari return as an assistant under a new regime.

“That’s what I would like to do, at the highest level, no doubt,” he said.

Many thought the Gophers would like to get their season over as fast as possible and perhaps pack it in against the Wolverines.

However, that notion was quickly thrown out as the Gophers stuck right with the Wolverines for 20 minutes, briefly leading by as many as five points at one point during the first half.

But once Michigan, who shot only 27.1 percent for the game, started stringing baskets together in the first minutes of the second half, Minnesota – who scored the lowest point total in Big Ten tournament history – didn’t have enough offensive power to keep pace with the Wolverines, who were in a must-win situation to keep their NCAA tournament hopes.

Despite the final result, sophomore center Jonathan Williams said, the Gophers’ ability to cut a 15-point second-half deficit to six with just a few minutes remaining proves that Minnesota never gave up on its season.

“We didn’t ever stop working, Williams said. “I don’t think anybody on our team has ever quit.”

Williams said some of the Gophers’ struggles this year weren’t about effort, but instead might have been caused by having too many young players forced to take on roles they weren’t yet ready for.

But without a single senior on this year’s squad, Minnesota will return its entire nucleus, a fact which, Williams said, should help the team be in much better shape.

“There should be no excuses next year with the depth that we’re going to have,” Williams said inside the Gophers’ somber locker room after the game.

“We’re going to have so much experience. Everybody played in the game (Thursday), so everybody took some kind of experience away from this.”

While Williams said the team will get back to work quickly, perhaps as soon as next week, athletic director Joel Maturi will search for a new head honcho for the program.

Maturi said Tuesday he would like to start interviewing candidates – once teams have been eliminated from their postseason tournaments – and he hopes to have a new coach in place by early April.

But the talk surrounding Molinari’s replacement wasn’t the most popular topic after the game. Instead, Minnesota players were focused on crediting their coach for the work he’s done.

Junior center Spencer Tollackson, who had a team-high 15 points against the Wolverines, said he wished he had a pen and paper handy every time he was around Molinari because of the life lessons his coach has provided him with.

“He’s a great basketball coach, but we love him for the person that he is, for the father that he is,” he said. “He’s definitely taught me tremendous life lessons, especially going out with my (broken) hand this year.

“We’ve had private conversations where he’s really touched me, and I’ll never forget that.”

Sophomore guard Jamal Abu-Shamala said Molinari is the hardest working coach he has ever had.

“I’ve never seen a coach work as hard off the court with just trying to get guys to push themselves with academics and basketball.

“He just put in more time than anyone that I’ve ever worked with. He’s just really truthful and has pushed us to be the best players that we could be. I just want to thank him for that.”

Molinari said it was nice to hear his players talk so fondly of him, but still maintains these very players will be rewarded for their work with victories.

“I love this group,” Molinari said. “That’s always rewarding. But still, I’d like to see them benefit a little more from all their hard work. But I still say they will get that.”