Gophers one and done at Big Ten tournament

Minnesota collapsed against Northwestern in the second half and will await news on the NIT.

Josh Katzenstein

INDIANAPOLIS âÄì A few weeks ago, the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team thought a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament would be a disappointment.
After losing 10 of 11 games, Minnesota (17-14, 6-12 Big Ten) is just hoping to make the NIT.
âÄúWe didnâÄôt expect to lose this first game,âÄù junior Trevor Mbakwe said after the Gophers fell to Northwestern, 75-65, in the first round of the Big Ten tournament Thursday. âÄúWeâÄôve just got to bounce back, and hopefully we can make the NIT and play strong from there.âÄù
The loss to the Wildcats is the first first-round loss by the Gophers under coach Tubby Smith in a Big Ten tournament, and the margin of defeat is the worst since 2003 when Northwestern dropped Minnesota 76-64 in the first round.
Senior Blake Hoffarber didnâÄôt want his final season to end like this, especially after having a taste of the NCAA tournament the previous two seasons.
âÄúIt definitely sucks,âÄù he said.
ThursdayâÄôs game played out as many of the GophersâÄô games did this season. They grabbed a 44-42 lead with 12 minutes, 54 second remaining and much of the momentum.
Then Northwestern (18-12, 7-11) hit consecutive 3-pointers and Juice Thompson, who scored a tournament-record 35 points, made a floater to begin a 24-6 run that left the Gophers hopeless.
âÄúIt seemed like we were all over the place and just not concentrating on what we were supposed to be doing,âÄù said Hoffarber, who scored 13 points on only 4-for-14 shooting.
Mbakwe finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds âÄî his sixth straight double-double âÄî to lead the Gophers, but Minnesota couldnâÄôt take advantage of a 41-35 edge on the glass.
Coach Tubby Smith blatantly expressed what the Gophers lacked down the stretch, alluding to senior point guard Al Nolen in the process.
âÄúWe donâÄôt have someone thatâÄôs orchestrating our offense or our defense,âÄù Smith said. âÄúWe just donâÄôt.âÄù
Many times Thursday individual players tried to take over the game, forcing shots early in the shot clock and forgoing the passing that helped Minnesota to an 11-1 record earlier this season.
Freshmen Austin Hollins and Chip Armelin were a combined 5-for-16 from the floor.
âÄúWe were trying to play team ball, but we were desperate to score,âÄù Armelin said.
Some of the Gophers also looked nervous, fumbling passes and missing layups. At one point, Rodney Williams lost a ball in midair on a fast break.
âÄúI thought we had the confidence and thought we had a good game plan,âÄù Hoffarber said. âÄúItâÄôs just been tough the last couple weeks.âÄù
After the game, Smith reflected on some of the setbacks the team suffered. Asked how he wouldâÄôve responded to a projection of the Gophers losing 10 of 11 games, he said, âÄúIâÄôd think they were crazy. I would say they were crazy. ThatâÄôs it.âÄù
He later added: âÄúWe didnâÄôt expect Al Nolen to break his foot, Devoe Joseph to leave, Maurice Walker to tear his knee up. You canâÄôt plan for that.âÄù
Armelin and Mbakwe said the NIT could be a good chance to gain momentum for next season, but that doesnâÄôt make it less disappointing.
Junior Ralph Sampson said players will need to spend more time together this offseason to âÄúmesh together a little bit more.âÄù
As for SmithâÄôs future, the University is in the process of working out an extension, according to reports.
âÄúIâÄôm looking forward to being at the âÄòUâÄô for some time,âÄù he said. âÄúHopefully this season or stretch of bad losses doesnâÄôt cause them to pull anything off the table.”