Not quite enough to get past Wisconsin

Junior guard Lawrence McKenzie led the Gophers with 21 points on the night.

Zach Eisendrath

On Valentine’s Day, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team played with plenty of heart, but couldn’t get a win over the third-ranked team in the country.

The Gophers made things interesting for awhile but couldn’t stop National Player of the Year candidate Alando Tucker when it mattered most and finally bowed out to Wisconsin 75-62 in front of a crowd of 13,820 on Wednesday night at Williams Arena.

“I thought this was probably the best game we’ve played all year,” junior center Spencer Tollackson said. “(But) you’ve got to give Wisconsin credit. Alando Tucker is the best player in college basketball, hands down, no one even comes close.”

Tollackson might have a point after the way Wisconsin’s ultra-dependable senior forward single-handedly took over a game which hung in the balance. Now almost a shoe-in for conference player of the year, Tucker scored 18 of his game-high 29 points in the second half to help the Badgers pull away from Minnesota (9-17 overall , 3-8 Big Ten).

“I think they’re contested shots; I think he just jumps up and hits them,” Gophers interim coach Jim Molinari said of Tucker’s night. “That’s why he could be the National Player of the Year.”

Despite the lopsided final score, Minnesota gave Wisconsin all it could handle for nearly 35 minutes.

After playing without its defensive identity the previous two games, the Gophers finally hunkered down on defensive and forced Wisconsin (25-2, 11-1) to 28.6 percent shooting in the first half and Minnesota trailed by just four at the half.

And when Tollackson scored the Gophers’ first nine points to start the second half, Minnesota took the momentum and had a brief 31-30 lead. The two border rivals seesawed back and forth for several minutes, but once Tollackson fouled out with 8:08 remaining, the Gophers were in trouble.

Even with plenty of firepower from junior guard Lawrence McKenzie, who had a team-high 21 points and was 4-of-6 from three-point range, Minnesota could no longer keep pace with the Badgers, who heated up to 55.6 percent from the floor in the second half.

Redshirt freshman guard Kevin Payton said it was his team’s inability to get consistent defensive stops in the second half which cost the Gophers the game.

“We couldn’t get (defensive stops) and they made the plays, that’s basketball,” Payton said.

But Molinari didn’t have many complaints with the way his team defended. He said sometimes a defense can’t stick with a gifted team like Wisconsin or a player of Tucker’s caliber for 40 minutes.

“Sometimes good defense gets beat by talent and I think that’s what happened,” Molinari said. “I think our defense was fine, I think (Tucker’s) talent won over.”

Still, Molinari said he was proud his team decided to play the Badgers differently than it did in its 68-45 loss in Madison on Jan. 6.

In that game, Minnesota jumped out to a lead early but let the Badgers – winners of 11 of the last 12 border-battle games – have their way with the Gophers from there. This time around Minnesota played Wisconsin more physically, according to Molinari.

“I think this time we banged with them,” he said. “I thought that was a good sign.”

Although the Gophers are probably sick of moral victories at this juncture of the season, they can be encouraged by the fact they stuck with one of the best teams in the country for so long.

“I think up until there was three minutes left I thought we had a legitimate chance to beat them,” Tollackson said.

“(But) they’re still the third-ranked team in the country and we’ve won three Big Ten games,” he said. “It’s a little bit hard to swallow because we played so well. A lot of things didn’t go our way tonight but they beat us.”