Gophers drop a nail-biter to Northwestern at the buzzer

Minnesota missed two shots in the last five seconds and lost by one.

Minnesota center Elliott Eliason fights for the ball at the tip off of the game against Northwestern, Saturday at Williams Arena. Minnesota lost the game 55-54.

Holly Peterson

Minnesota center Elliott Eliason fights for the ball at the tip off of the game against Northwestern, Saturday at Williams Arena. Minnesota lost the game 55-54.

Jace Frederick

Minnesota’s locker room following a 55-54 loss to Northwestern resembled a stereotypical uninhabited desert scene with a lone tumbleweed trundling through the backdrop.

Desolate.

Those players who could bear to stay at their lockers fought back tears — some unsuccessfully.

“You never want your guys to cry, but certainly it’s great when they care,” head coach Richard Pitino said. “They care about winning.

“That’s the first step, certainly, toward building a winning program.”

Unlike other close losses this season, there were no moral victories for the Gophers on Saturday at Williams Arena.

This is one they should have won.

“It’s very disappointing,” senior guard Austin Hollins said.

Minnesota had a shot to flip the script as the final seconds ticked away against the Wildcats.

Gophers junior point guard DeAndre Mathieu took the ball to the rack with less than 10 seconds to play. His shot clanked off the iron.

It looked like that was it, but junior center Mo Walker corralled the rebound and had just enough time to throw up a point-blank put-back attempt. His shot also clanked off the iron after a short dance on the outside of the cylinder.

And down went the Gophers.

“A disappointing one — frustrating to say the least,” Pitino said. “This is a tough one.”

A tough one for a team that appeared to be one of the rising squads of the Big Ten.

It was just 10 days before Saturday’s loss when the Gophers managed to topple then-No. 9 Wisconsin at the Barn.

It appeared as if things were on the uptick following that monumental win, but since then, the Gophers have fallen in two-straight tight contests to middle-of-the-pack clubs — exactly the type of team the Gophers are starting to look like now.

“I guess that’s what separates the top of the league from where we’re at in the middle,” junior center Elliott Eliason said. “It’s just a bunch of teams that can’t pull out wins they need to pull out to separate themselves.”

Pitino said after the game he was most frustrated with the Gophers’ start.

Northwestern jumped out to a 21-11 lead 10 minutes into the game on the strength of five triples.

Minnesota responded with a 16-2 run to take the lead, but it went into the locker room trailing 32-29.

“We did a bad job defending in the first half,” Mathieu said. “We’ve just got to get back to our defensive ways.

“We’re giving up too many easy looks, and guys are scoring too easy on us.”

While defensive improvement was the primary focus postgame, as it generally is, it didn’t seem to be the primary issue.

On Saturday, the offense — which has been so good to this point in the season — was the problem.

The Gophers shot just 3-for-14 from deep. Minnesota senior guard Malik Smith, who scored 29 points in Minnesota’s loss to Nebraska six days earlier, only managed seven points Saturday in his second start of the season, in place of the injured Andre Hollins.

Walker poured in 12 first-half points, but he added just two more in the second half.

Minnesota looked flustered by the Wildcats’ stifling man-to-man defense and suck-the-air-out-of-the-ball mentality.

Now, it’s back to the drawing board for a team that looked like a dark horse Big Ten contender poised for an NCAA tournament bid.

The Gophers need answers, and they need them fast.

“We’re going to have to have a heck of a February and March to sort it out; hopefully we come out on top,” Eliason said. “We’ve got a ton of really tough games ahead of us.”

And as for those postgame tears — they’ll dry.

“We move on,” Pitino said. “We’ve just got to continue to get healthy and just learn from these mistakes.”