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Looking into Minnesota men’s basketball’s first-half struggles

The Gophers lost four straight Big Ten games before leaving Penn State with a win.
Image by Eleanor King
The Gophers MBB team fell to the Wisconsin Badgers by two points on Tuesday, Jan. 23.

Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball started their last seven second halves down, going 3-4 in that stretch.

The Gophers trailed Michigan and Maryland at the half but were able to secure single-digit wins. Their next three against Indiana, Iowa and Michigan State all ended in losses before returning home to face Wisconsin in the Border Battle.

Head coach Ben Johnson was asked on Jan. 23 about the team’s mindset heading into the second half after their two-point loss to Wisconsin.

Playing with confidence and not on your heels, you can’t be afraid to fail, you can’t be afraid to miss shots, you can’t be afraid to play on the attack,” Johnson said.

Their first-half losing streak came to an end on Saturday after an explosive offensive run tied the score against Northwestern.

Minnesota at Indiana 

The Assembly Hall is one of the toughest places to play in the Big Ten and the Hoosiers proved that in dominating fashion.

During the first half, the Gophers shot 37.9% from the field and found themselves trailing 31-41 at halftime. The second half wasn’t much better for Minnesota, as they shot 40% from the field and 7.1% from three. 

Pharrel Payne led the Gophers with 17 points and five blocks, but big games from Mackenzie Mgbako (19 points), Kel’el Ware (17) and Malik Reneau (16) led Indiana to a 74-62 win.

Minnesota versus Iowa

Once again, the Gophers were down at the half 29-32. Despite a huge 30-point game from junior forward Dawson Garcia, the Gophers only managed to shoot 43.3% from the field during the first half and 48.3% overall.

The Gophers struggled again from three, shooting 5 for 29 from the three-point line. The Hawkeyes had a good shooting first half but shot 60% in the second half to close out the match.

Minnesota gave up 18 more points in the paint than they scored (36-54) and ended up losing by single digits. 

Garcia’s 30 points was his second 30-point game of the season and second of his career. He had 36 points in a loss against Ohio State earlier in the year. 

Minnesota at Michigan State 

The Gophers changed the trend a bit but trailed 34-37 at the half. However, the first half was much better than the second. 

Minnesota shot 47.8% from the field and 45.5% from three in the first half but  shot only 38.5% from the field in the second half. Michigan State would end up beating the Gophers 76-66.

Michigan State outplayed Minnesota inside, outscoring them in the paint 44-12. Points off turnovers were also a problem for the Gophers. They gave up 21 points off turnovers while scoring six for themselves.

Minnesota’s transitions lacked any significant offensive production, only contributing two points to their final score compared to Michigan State’s 17 points.

Garcia finished the game leading all scorers with 22 points. Junior guard Mike Mitchell Jr. was the only other Gopher in double digits with 12 points.

Minnesota versus No. 13 Wisconsin

Guard Elijah Hawkins returned to play in the Border Battle matchup after missing the previous game due to an ankle injury. He finished the game with 16 points and nine assists.

Minnesota’s shot selection nearly took them out of the game. They shot 31% from the field in the first half while the Badgers made 50% of their attempts. However, with an energetic third quarter, the Gophers fought back from being down 24-34 in the first to make it a close game. 

The poor free throw shooting performance from Minnesota, who shot only 38.5% from the line, did not put them out of reach of winning, but it made the end of the game harder than needed. 

The Gophers were given an opportunity for a make-one-miss-one free-throw attempt to try to tie the game with a few seconds left. Mitchell Jr. made the first and missed the second perfectly, grabbing his rebound and getting a great look at a mid-range jump shot, but it did not fall.

Johnson did not seem too put off by the loss, knowing the Gophers played a great game and kept themselves in it.

“Mike read it great, had a great miss, and you have a great opportunity to make it, and I think at some point here soon the basketball gods are going to finally shine down on us because they did everything but go in,” Johnson said after the game.

Johnson added his players have done everything asked of them and are hoping for “a little luck” to come their way. 

Garcia had a down game, scoring only 10 points and making four of his 10 attempts. Garcia said he understands it was just one game.

“We just got to move forward and just got to finish the job,” Garcia said after the loss.

Minnesota at Penn State

The Gophers’ win in State College, Pennsylvania, was their first since 2019, but it did not come without adversity. The Gophers trailed once again at the half after a double-digit run from the Nittany Lions.

According to Johnson, forward Joshua Ola-Joseph has been a vocal leader in the locker room despite being a sophomore. 

“If I see a mistake, I’m getting on a teammate or hyping a teammate up,” Ola-Joseph said on Friday. “Just having energy and people follow along with that.” 

Minnesota trailed 31-45 coming into the second half, but the energy shifted for the Gophers. Big games from Garcia (22 points) and Cam Christie (17) helped the Gophers win the game 83-74.

The defense was an additional significant contributing factor to snapping Minnesota’s brief losing streak. They held Penn State to 35.7% shooting in the second half while shooting 53.8% themselves.

Minnesota versus Northwestern

Northwestern started Big Ten play with No.1 ranked Purdue and won 92-88 in overtime. Their only other ranked win came on Jan. 24 against then-ranked No. 10 Illinois in overtime.

The Wildcats came into the game against Minnesota ranked outside the top 25, receiving 32 votes in the most recent Associated Press poll.

The Gophers broke their seven-game streak of being down at the half with a 10-point run in the final two minutes to tie the score at 27 points. Wildcat guard Boo Buie made two free throws with four seconds left to send the game to overtime.

Garcia took over, scoring eight straight points after the three-minute mark. He finished the game with 20 points while Christie added 15 points with multiple threes in the second half.

Minnesota won 75-66, allowing five points in overtime. They moved to an even 5-5 in conference play and 14-7 overall with the win. Their next match will be a late-night rematch at home next Tuesday against Michigan State.

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