Gophers let another game slip away

With its seventh loss in eight games, Minnesota’s NCAA tournament hopes are fading fast.

Josh Katzenstein

They missed passes. They missed defensive assignments. And numerous times during the final minutes of SaturdayâÄôs game, the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team missed the rim.

Now, after a 70-63 loss to Michigan at Williams Arena, Minnesota looks like it will miss the NCAA Tournament.

âÄúThis is a game that just probably does it in for us,âÄù coach Tubby Smith said. âÄúWe canâÄôt win at home against a team that weâÄôre supposed to beat that we beat at their place.âÄù

When the Gophers beat Michigan on Jan. 22 in Ann Arbor, senior point guard Al Nolen broke his foot. Minnesota is 2-7 since he went down, but his absence didnâÄôt decide the game Saturday.

After the Gophers took a 62-59 lead on a Blake Hoffarber layup with 3:14 to play, the Wolverines closed the game on an 11-1 run, reminiscent of MinnesotaâÄôs loss to Michigan State just days before when the Spartans scored 14 of the gameâÄôs final 15 points.

âÄúI think weâÄôve just got to stay mentally focused,âÄù said Hoffarber who had 18 points and six assists but a costly turnover late in the game. âÄúI think we start to lose our focus a little bit. They start going on a little run, and we start to freeze a little bit.âÄù

The Gophers (17-11, 6-10 Big Ten) have lost seven of their last eight games, four of them at The Barn. They now have just two games left in the regular season (at Northwestern and vs. Penn State) and are guaranteed to finish below .500 in conference play. In each of the last two seasons, the Gophers finished 9-9 in the Big Ten and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

âÄúWeâÄôre still playing to get in the tournament,âÄù junior forward Trevor Mbakwe said after an 18-point, nine-rebound performance. âÄúWeâÄôve got two games left âĦ that we feel very comfortable that we can win. And weâÄôre going to go into the [Big Ten] tournament with our hopes up high.âÄù

After the Wolverines cut the GophersâÄô lead to just one on a layup from Tim Hardaway Jr., who had 22 points, Zack Novak hit a 3-pointer to give Michigan a 64-62 lead with 1:38 to play.

Smith called a timeout before the GophersâÄô next possession only to see his team botch the planned play. Sophomore Rodney Williams threw a lazy pass to Ralph Sampson III, who had a six-inch height advantage over his defender, Novak. Seeing the semi-lob, Novak ran around Sampson and stole the ball before making a one-armed heave down to guard Darius Morris, who made a basket and drew a foul, completing a 3-point play that gave the Wolverines a 67-62 lead with 48 seconds left.

The Gophers couldnâÄôt recover.

âÄúThereâÄôs no reason for those turnovers at the end,âÄù Smith said. âÄúThereâÄôs no reason for Rodney to throw a little lob pass, and thereâÄôs no reason for Ralph not to get it. But he didnâÄôt.âÄù

The Wolverines started the game on fire, hitting their first six 3-pointers, including three from Hardaway, who had 15 points before intermission. After the hot start, Michigan kept shooting from deep, making 9-of-22 attempts in the half. Stu DouglassâÄô 3-pointer with 5:45 left in the first half gave the Wolverines a 35-23 lead, but Michigan didnâÄôt score another point until the second half.

Minnesota took advantage of its opponentâÄôs drought and closed the half on a 10-0 run to cut the deficit to 35-33 at the break. Mbakwe had 12 points in the first half despite being constantly double-teamed.

The Gophers came out and grabbed the lead less than 3 minutes into the second half, but even when Minnesota appeared to get comfortable, Morris, who had 17 points and seven assists, came up with big plays to keep the Wolverines afloat. Minnesota never led by more than 3.

But the Gophers still had chances late, and with the game on the line, they tried to give the ball to their playmakers.

âÄúObviously they didnâÄôt make the plays,âÄù Smith said. âÄúWe just donâÄôt seem to have the willpower and toughness there to just do it.âÄù

Now the Gophers must find the willpower to avoid watching all of the talk about bubble teams because when their name is brought up, it wonâÄôt be in a good way.

âÄúWhen itâÄôs ending like this itâÄôs definitely a lot harder not to watch that, but I think right now itâÄôs probably in our best interest not to follow that,âÄù Hoffarber said. âÄúI think weâÄôve just got to realize that we need to get some wins, and we need to do some damage in the Big Ten Tournament.âÄù