I guess I’m not sure if I actually expected a loss to cap the final regular season game in a season that has mutated from happy, fun-filled, high-expectation laden experience into an ugly, nightmarish collapse into the bottom of the Big Ten standings, but at the end of the 66-63 finale that left the Gophers as losers of nine of their final 10 games, the result felt anything but surprising.
Like a scripted story, Minnesota found themselves trailing at halftime by only three points and never fell behind or jumped ahead by any significant amount. Like recent games, the Gophers gave up a late lead, failing to lock down the advantage they given themselves with less than two minutes left in the game. The team was unable to capitalize on the momentum they had gathered and, once again, failed to execute down the stretch, giving up back-to-back three pointers before Ralph Sampson III airballed his open three-point attempt, effectively sealing the team’s fate.
Stagnant offense was pretty much the key to the loss against the Nittany Lions and something that has plagued the team ever since Al Nolen left with an injury. Like I mentioned in our Northwestern recap, the Gophers have been unable to capitalize on the opportunities that other teams have given them through their own offensive shortcomings. Case in point: from the 11:12 mark in the second half until the 5:00 mark Penn State scored exactly two points. That’s two points in just over six minutes playing time. In those six minutes the Gophers were able to score exactly four points. Too often this season Minnesota’s offense has gone quiet at the most inopportune times; times when they should be taking control of games when the other team is struggling, especially on their home court. The lack of composure down the stretch has claimed several games for the team in the second half of this season, but it’s been the lack of overall execution on offense that has left them in the position of having to play at a high level of stress in the final four minutes of many games during their collapse.
Rodney Williams was one of the few bright spots for the team, putting together arguably his best game of the season with 14 points, five rebounds and three steals. He also added a couple thunderous dunks that brought the crowd to its collective feet. Trevor Mbakwe also had a solid game, putting up 10 points and 14 rebounds, though he only attempted six shots on the day, a number that is far too low. Blake Hoffarber led the team with 17 points, though he was only able to go 2-7 from deep. In fact, the team itself shot only 2-15 from long range, reinforcing it’s lack of offensive execution.
It seemed that Al Nolen was the sole reason that the team was struggling initially after their leader had to take a seat on the bench due to injury. But as the season has worn on, it has become more apparent that Nolen is not the only factor that has contributed to the team’s downfall. It’s not like the Gophers are getting blown out in every game they’re playing. In fact, they’ve had leads in almost every close game they’ve lost and have shown that they are on a talent level comparable to the teams they’ve faced. The epic season collapse has less to do with Nolen than originally thought, and much more to do with the composure of the team. It has been frustrating to see a lack of execution on the floor for long stretches, especially when the team has been in position to win more often than not. And the fashion in which they’ve lost has been mind boggling. It really has been the same script in each of their close losses:
- Play a close first half and go into halftime either up or down by a handful of points;
- Come out with a decent start to the second half, keeping the game close;
- Go stagnant on offense for a good five minutes;
- Manage to take a small lead due to the opponent’s corresponding inability to score;
- Completely self-destruct in the final four minutes, giving away leads in excess of 10 points
Given how the season has gone, it’s sad to think that Minnesota might even be a bubble NIT team at this point. Obviously, the only way for the team to make the NCAA Tournament is for them to go on an epic, championship-winning run that will give them the automatic bid. But losing nine of 10 doesn’t look good in anyone’s eyes, let alone the NIT committee. It’s a sad state of affairs in Gopherland these days. Should Minnesota fall to Northwestern in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament, they could be CBI-bound.
The Penn State loss was a fitting end to a season that began with a lot of promise; held true for just over the half of the season and them came crashing down in monumental fashion. Losing nine games out of 10 is something that is not easily repeatable, especially when many of the games were quite winnable. Basketball is a sport that tends to have a balancing element to it; unfortunately, the Gophers haven’t seen a return to the mean in a long, long time. Let’s hope for the best in the Big Ten tournament.