Once again the Gophers found themselves with the lead late in the game, and once again they failed to secure the victory, seeing the Michigan Wolverines go on a late 11-1 run to take home a 70-63 victory that all but seals the NCAA Tournament fate for Minnesota.
The epic late-season collapse continued with another meltdown in crunch time that has become the Gophers’ signature in recent weeks. Holding a 62-59 lead with just over three minutes to go, Minnesota looked to be in control and was finally using its size to push around the much smaller Michigan squad. But, as has happened so many times now, mental mistakes and head-scratching decisions down the stretch left the Gophers on the losing end of the battle for the seventh time in eight games. The collapse was punctuated by a combination Rodney Williams/Ralph Sampson III turnover in which 6-4 “power forward” Zach Novak intercepted a pass from Williams on the block, leading to a three-point, and-one conversion at the other end for the Wolverines.
The box score doesn’t indicate much of what, and has, plagued the Gophers for their abysmal month-long stretch, which is lack of execution. On the surface it looks like they shot well (43%), took care of the ball (only nine turnovers), stayed out of foul trouble and actually cashed in at the free throw line. However, there is nothing in the stat book that will illustrate the maddening lack of execution that has transformed Minnesota from a 6-seed to an NIT-bound abomination. We don’t really have stats that measure an Austin Hollins airball from a wide-open attempt in the corner. Missed fast breaks that are not only NOT capitalized on, but end up as points for the opponent on the subsequent possession won’t show up in the box score. Getting out-hustled by a defender seven inches shorter than you on the block with a minute and a half left can’t be quantified anywhere other than in our minds.
It’s things like these that have paralyzed Minnesota in their last eight games and have prevented them from closing out games. It’s not like they’ve been getting blown out or run out of gyms. The team has been in position to win multiple times and has failed to convert when it really matters. It’s not disinterest or lack of effort that has hurt them; the team just looks like it doesn’t have a clue when they really need one.
Tubby Smith might have said it best in his post-game press conference: “We can’t win at home against a team we’re supposed to beat and we beat at their place. We’re not missing but one guy, really. That’s the disappointing part about it.” Minnesota is missing Al Nolen, yes. But this is still a team that should be winning games at home against a team like Michigan when their backs are against the wall. The loss is inexcusable.
In terms of performances, Trevor Mbakwe looked like a man among boys in the post and converted 8 of his 14 shots for 18 points while pulling down 9 rebounds. Why Mbakwe didn’t get a touch on every possession is beyond me (half joking), but the truth is that Michigan had no way to match his physicality or the Gophers’ size, and the fact that someone like Colton Iverson was only able to attempt one shot is ridiculous. Blake Hoffarber had a solid all-around game, putting up 18 points, dishing out six assists and pulling down five rebounds. Williams looked decent at times and actually hit a couple three pointers, but 1-7 from the field on attempts from inside the arc is nothing to write home about. Ditto for Hollins, who looked like a scared high schooler on the court and ended the with three (3!) airballs. I’ve been a Hollins apologist all season, but at this point the guy just has no confidence and was responsible for a couple of crucial missed opportunities against Michigan. I understand that he’s a freshman being forced to play extended minutes, but at this point in the season, you really need to be converting the 2-on-1 fast breaks.
Minnesota is now 17-11 on the season and 6-10 in conference play. The loss to the Wolverines has all but shattered their hopes of getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament as it was pretty clear that the Gophers needed to win the final three games of their regular season to be assured of a bid. The loss puts Minnesota behind Michigan in terms of bubble teams and now puts them in position of having to win their final two games and produce an impressive performance in the Big Ten tournament in order to be considered. Limping into the postseason is no way to receive an invite to the Big Dance and, suffice to say, the collapse is still happening.