Gophers fall in defensive struggle with Wisconsin

Minnesota’s offense managed 51 points in defeat.

Jordan Murphy watches as Iowa catches his basket on Sunday, Jan. 27 at Williams Arena.

Jasmin Kemp

Jordan Murphy watches as Iowa catches his basket on Sunday, Jan. 27 at Williams Arena.

Nick Jungheim

After winning at Wisconsin on Jan. 3 for the first time since 2009, Minnesota went into Wednesday’s match-up seeking its first sweep of the Badgers since that same year.

The rematch between the two rivals featured even less scoring than the first game. Minnesota (16-7, 6-6 Big Ten) posted a season-low in points, falling 56-51 to No. 19 Wisconsin (17-6, 9-3 Big Ten).  

“Tough one, obviously,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “We just went cold. I thought we got some good looks, we just couldn’t hit them.”

The Gophers never held a lead in the game. A Wisconsin 3-pointer with 4:10 remaining in the first half gave the Badgers a 22-19 lead they never again relinquished.  

Just like the last game when Minnesota won 59-52 it was clear from the beginning that the game would be a defensive struggle where every point was earned. Minnesota shot 38 percent in the first half while Wisconsin shot a lowly 28 percent.

Minnesota entered the game last in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting. On Wednesday, the Gophers turned in one of their worst performances, going 1-13 (.077) from behind the arc.

“I’m a shooter so I have to keep shooting,” said freshman Gabe Kalscheur. “Everyone is going to have those off nights.”

Despite the physical nature of the contest, the referees let the players play. Wisconsin never committed a personal foul in the first half while the Gophers were called for five, two of which came in the final seconds.  

Despite only scoring 21 points in the first half, that tough defensive play kept Minnesota within three points at halftime. The Gophers keyed in on Wisconsin’s biggest offensive threat, redshirt junior Ethan Happ, double-teaming him whenever he got the ball in the low post. They held Happ to four points on 2-8 shooting in the first half.

Much like Purdue junior Carsen Edwards on Sunday, Minnesota couldn’t contain its opponent’s best player for the full 40 minutes. Happ showed why he’s one of the most feared players in the Big Ten, converting four of his five second-half shots and finishing with a team-leading 15 points. He also led the Badgers in rebounds (13) and assists (four).

“We were being more cautious of shooters [in the second-half] because he’s a good passer.” said senior Jordan Murphy of Happ. “When he was passing out of the post they were knocking down shots. He just got in good position on our five-men.”

For Minnesota, it was also the big men who turned in stellar performances. Murphy turned in a strong second half, totaling team highs of 16 points and 19 rebounds on the evening. His front-court partner, freshman Daniel Oturu played 30 minutes off the bench, scoring 12 points on 5-7 shooting and hauling in 11 rebounds.

Minnesota will continue a challenging stretch featuring five ranked opponents in six games when the Gophers travel to East Lansing, Michigan to play No. 9 Michigan State on Saturday.

“We still have so many good opportunities moving forward,” Pitino said.  “Some great opportunities [at home].  Great opportunities on the road. We finish with a lot of tough games. Just figure out what we’re doing wrong, what we’re doing right, and learn and grow from it.”