Gophers drop a nail-biter to Northwestern

Jace Frederick

The Gophers locker room following Minnesota’s 55-54 loss to Northwestern (12-11, 5-5) resembled an uninhabited desert with tumbleweed flowing through the backdrop.

Desolate.

Heads were hung and the gloom-filled faces of those who could bare to stay at their lockers were fighting back tears — some unsuccessfully.

“You never want your guys to cry, but certainly it’s great when they care,” Gophers head coach Richard Pitino said. “They care about winning. That’s the first step certainly towards building a winning program.”

Unlike many other of the Gophers (15-7, 4-5) close losses this season, there were no moral victories to be had on Saturday at Williams Arena. This is one they should have won.

“Very disappointing,” senior guard Austin Hollins said.

Minnesota had a shot to flip the script in the end.  Junior point guard DeAndre Mathieu took the ball to the rack with less than 10 seconds to play — his shot clanked off the iron.

But junior big man Mo Walker seized the rebound and had time to throw up a point-blank put-back attempt, but that also failed to fall through the cylinder after a short dance with the rim, and down went the Gophers.

“Certainly a disappointing one, frustrating to say the least,” Pitino said. “This is a tough one.”

A tough one for a team that appeared to be one of the rising forces in the Big Ten just 10 days ago when it toppled then-No. 9 Wisconsin in the same arena that hosted its demise on Saturday.

Following that monumental victory, the Gophers have fallen in two-straight tight contests to middle-of-the-pack clubs, which is what the Gophers are starting to appear to be as well — again.

“I guess that’s what separates the top of the league from where we’re at in the middle,” junior center Elliott Eliason said. “Just a bunch of teams that can’t pull out wins they need to pull out to separate themselves.”

Pitino said he was most frustrated with the Gophers start, which point them behind the eight ball.

Northwestern jumped out to a 21-11 lead 10 minutes into the game on the strength of five triples.

The Cats came into the game shooting under 30 percent from long range.

Minnesota responded with a 16-2 run to take a brief lead, but went into the locker room trailing 32-29.

“We did a bad job defending in the first half,” Mathieu said. “We’ve just got to get back to our defensive ways. We’re giving up too many easy looks. Guys are scoring too easy on us.”

But while defensive improvement was the primary focus of the talk from Pitino and his players post-game, as it generally is, it didn’t seem to be the primary issue.

Minnesota held Northwestern to 9 for 22 shooting (40.9 percent) in the second half. 

On Saturday, it was the offense, which has been so good to this point in the season, that failed the Gophers. 

Minnesota shot 3 for 14 from deep. Senior guard Malik Smith, who scored 29 points in Minnesota’s loss to Nebraska six days earlier, was held to seven points on 3 for 11 shooting on Saturday in his second start of the season in place of the injured Andre Hollins.

Even what the Gophers did appear to have going only lasted for short spurts. Walker poured in 12 first-half points, but added just two more in the second half.

The Gophers looked flustered by the Wildcats’ stifling man-to-man defense and suck-the-air-out-of-the-ball mentality.

Possession-wise, it was the slowest game the Gophers have played all season.

“I don’t know, I don’t know what is is,” Mathieu said about the Gophers poor shooting performance. “It’s all about our defense. If we defend, shots don’t really matter.”

After the loss, the Gophers, who just 10 days ago looked like a Big Ten contender poised for an NCAA Tournament bid, are a squad searching for answers.

Answers the Gophers need to find soon, with a road trip to West Lafayette, Ind. for a date with Purdue slated for Wednesday night.

“We’re going to have a heck of a February and March to sort it out, hopefully we come out on top,” Eliason said. “But we’ve got a ton of really tough games ahead of us.”

And for those post-game tears evident after the loss, they’ll dry.

“We move on,” Pitino said. “It’s only worth one. We’ve just got to continue to get healthy and just learn from these mistakes.”