Gophers men’s basketball drops seventh straight to close regular season

The Gophers lost their seventh consecutive game in what felt like Richard Pitino’s last home game as the head coach of Minnesota.

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Emily Pofahl

Gophers forward Eric Curry challenges a defender at Williams Arena on Dec. 10, 2020. The Gophers went on to defeat the Kansas City Roos 90-61.

Nolan O'Hara

It’s only fitting that an unusual season for the Gophers men’s basketball team would be capped by an unusual final game against Rutgers.

The start time was moved to 11 a.m., star point guard Marcus Carr didn’t score for the first 36 minutes of the game and Minnesota’s three seniors — Eric Curry, Brandon Johnson and Hunt Conroy — were honored for senior “night,” with very limited fans in the stands; players’ family members could only observe the ceremony from 100 feet away in the bleachers.

“I can’t ask any more from these [seniors] … I hate that it hasn’t been a traditional senior year for them but those families have been so supportive,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said.

Despite support from families and players, Pitino’s days in Dinkytown are likely numbered. As rumors have continued to swirl about Pitino’s future, Minnesota’s athletics director Mark Coyle was in attendance to watch the Gophers come up short once again, falling 77-70 in overtime to the Scarlet Knights (14-10, 10-10 Big Ten). After the game, Pitino made his way back into the stadium from the locker room, seemingly a sign he may have coached his last game in the Barn for Minnesota.

No one would have thought back in January the Gophers would be on the outside of the NCAA tournament bubble. They had an 11-4 record with wins over No. 5 Iowa, No. 7 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan. But canceled games, offensive struggles and injuries have all played a role in the team’s collapse.

Now, Minnesota (13-14, 6-14 Big Ten) will look towards the Big Ten tournament after closing the regular season on a seven-game losing streak.

“We were right there, but injuries hit us. So, kinda is what it is,” Pitino said.

The tough stretches for the Gophers came early on Saturday. They went over three minutes in the first half without a field goal and fell behind 37-28 by the half, a deficit which would have been greater had it not been for the play of Johnson, who led all scorers with 11 first half points and added five boards.

He finished with a team-high 19 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for the double double.

“Brandon tried to go out with a bang,” Curry said. “I mean, we needed it … that was big for us, we needed that.”

Johnson along with guards Tre’ Williams and Jamal Mashburn Jr. tried to fill a void in the scoring column left by Carr’s struggles. Carr started the game 0-for-10 from the field and didn’t score his first points until there was 3:32 left in the game. He did, however, hit the game-tying three-point shot that sent the game into overtime. He finished with seven points and seven rebounds on 1-for-13 shooting.

“We told [Carr] to keep going. ‘We know what you can do, it’s going to show,’ and in that moment he came up big for us,” Curry said.

Williams and Mashburn stepped up offensively, even if it wasn’t either of their best shooting performances. Mashburn finished with 17 points and six rebounds, while Williams finished with 11 points and six rebounds. Both players saw the court for over 35 minutes.

But the Gophers’ mistakes ultimately led to a defeat in overtime. The Scarlet Knights opened the overtime period on a 6-0 run. Minnesota answered briefly, but Rutgers guard Jacob Young attacked the basket, finishing at the rim and drawing a fifth foul on Curry to go to the line for an extra point. That put the Scarlet Knights up 74-68 with 40 seconds remaining.

Young scored a game-high 23 points, six of which came in overtime, and shot 8-for-13 from the field, adding seven assists and five rebounds. Guards Geo Baker and Montez Mathis finished with 12 points each for Rutgers.

All that remains for Minnesota is the Big Ten tournament, which is slated for March 10-14. The Gophers will look to get a little big healthier and close out their season strong when they retake the court next week.

“Obviously, we’re not happy with the results but I am happy with the effort,” Johnson said. “I’m happy how everybody played, we all gave it all that we had … That’s something we can definitely build off of.”