Gophers fall to Syracuse in Maui

Malik Smith shot 4 of 7 from beyond the arc and finished with 16 points.

Junior forward Oto Osenieks fights for control of the ball at the game against Wofford on Nov. 21, 2013.

Lisa Persson

Junior forward Oto Osenieks fights for control of the ball at the game against Wofford on Nov. 21, 2013.

Jace Frederick

The Gophers went toe-to-toe with No. 8 Syracuse (5-0) on Tuesday night in the first round of the Maui Invitational, but they eventually fell short.

Minnesota (5-1) lost 75-67 to the Orange — its first loss of the season and of the Richard Pitino era.

The Gophers overcame a 14-point second-half deficit and got as close as 67-65 with 2:13 to play.

But turnovers on back-to-back possessions proved to be the difference.

“It just came [down] to a few plays. We knew we had that game,” junior guard Andre Hollins said. “We played every possession hard, satisfied with the effort. Just got to tighten up the little things.”

Junior center Elliott Eliason anchored the Gophers down low with six points, five blocks and nine rebounds. He altered numerous shots whenever Syracuse penetrated the Gophers’ defense.

“He’s a big difference-maker,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said. “He’s a really good player, good passer, very good defensive player.”

The Gophers trailed by just three points at the break in part due to Eliason and a scorching first-half shooting performance.

Minnesota hit on six of 11 three-point attempts through 20 minutes to help make up for 12 first-half turnovers.

“They can shoot the basketball as well as anybody in terms of their whole team,” Boeheim said.

Syracuse opened up the second half on a 13-2 run, capped by a C.J. Fair jumper, to expand the Orange’s lead to 52-38 with 15:54 to play.

Fair — the preseason pick for Atlantic Coastal Conference Player of the Year — finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds.

But Minnesota immediately responded with a 14-4 run of its own, including a couple of Malik Smith triples from well beyond the arc that brought the score to 56-52.

Smith finished with a season-high 16 points on the strength of four threes. His ability to extend the floor provided a solution to Syracuse’s stingy 2-3 zone defense when the Gophers were in desperate need of answers.

“We knew Smith shot it every time he got it from wherever he was,” Boeheim said. “The last two, he was a good 10 feet behind the line, and after that, we just moved up further. … But he has some kind of deep range.”

The Gophers’ guards were relegated to the outside shot all game as they struggled to finish at the rim amid the Syracuse big men.

“The Syracuse bigs are really big,” Smith said. “It’s hard to simulate their length in practice.”

Minnesota’s encouraging performance came on a night when its top talent struggled. Senior guard Austin Hollins shot 3-for-8 from the field, and leading scorer Andre Hollins went just 1-for-9 after hitting his first four shots of the game. He finished with 14 points.

“Certainly a hard-fought loss, but I’m very, very proud of our team,” Pitino said. “When you’re building a program … you want to show you’re going to compete on every single possession. Our guys did that tonight.”

The Gophers now move to the consolation bracket and will take on Arkansas at 1 p.m. on Tuesday.