The Gophers left a tremendous opportunity to bolster their NCAA at-large resume on the table Thursday night against Wisconsin and further solidify what was shaping up to be a decent argument to be one of the final teams selected in March. The Gophers, winners of five of their previous seven conference games, battled back from 10 points down to send the game to overtime in a thrilling final few minutes of action, before forgetting how to score in the extra period, and ultimately losing 68-61.
The game against Wisconsin was far from a must win – six games remain for the Gophers to try to pull together three or four wins – but given the roster of teams that will come through the Barn, Wisconsin presented one of the more winnable opportunities compared to facing Michigan State or Ohio State. That said, in dropping the home contest to the Badgers, Minnesota now has an even slimmer margin for error as conference season begins to wrap up.
Perhaps more aggrevating than actually losing to Wisconsin at home was exactly HOW the Gophers lost. Jordan Taylor absolutely shredded Minnesota in his final trip through Williams Arena and scored 27 points while hitting five three-pointers. Just when Minnesota would seemingly be poised for a run, the Bloomington native would hit a huge shot, often with the shot clock dwindling and the ball far from the basket. It certainly lets the air out of the room when the Gophers play solid defense for 34 seconds, only to have a desperation heave from behind the arc fall, which happened multiple times. Minnesota did what it absolutely couldn’t do if it wanted to win – let Jordan Taylor take over the game.
Giving up rebounds also killed the Gophers, who gave up 10 offensive rebounds to the Badgers, giving them second and even third chances to put the ball in the hoop. Ryan Evans was key inside and bullied Minnesota on both ends of the court. Evans finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds, four of which were offensive.
The Gopher bench was largely ineffective, save for Andre Hollins who had a career game, scoring 20 points and going 5-6 from long range. Hollins provided one of the lone spark plugs for the Minnesota offense, and nearly single-handedly kept the team in the game down the stretch with huge shots. Unfortunately, the rest of the bench combined for six points and Chip Armelin failed to be the lighting-in-a-bottle off the bench that he had become in previous games.
Perhaps more frightening was the lack of scoring output from Joe Coleman, who failed to record a point for the third straight game. Coleman was key in the Gopher turnaround, showing a nose for the basket and the ability to get to the free-throw line. Unfortunately, Coleman’s freshman status showed through again and the guard only saw 16 minutes of action against Wisconsin. Of course, you can’t blame Tubby for keeping him on the bench – Coleman looked supremely outmatched on the court and was ineffective at getting to the hoop. With Andre Hollins scoring at will, his hot hand took precedence over the ineffectiveness Coleman showed.
The Gophers were outplayed for much of the game, save the final eight minutes where they went on a game-tying run. Unfortunately, the final two looks from both Andre and Austin Hollins fell short, which led to overtime. Wisconsin regrouped after the near-meltdown and did what veteran teams do – execute when it matters most. The Badgers attacked the basket and got to the line, while Minnesota settled for contested jump shots and gave the Badgers chance after chance to put the game away.
The loss leaves Minnesota with a tough final slate of games in which to secure a few victories. As I mentioned last week, I think that 8 wins in the conference and a victory in the Big Ten tournament gets the Gophers into the tournament. Unfortunately, one of those three wins now has to come against some of the best teams in the nation. One of the saving graces is that Michigan State, Ohio State and Indiana all have to come through Williams Arena in order to win. Winning on the road is never easy in this conference, which at least give the Gophers a shred of hope that they can pull an upset. Unfortunately, they absolutely cannot afford to slip up against Northwestern or Nebraska as a loss to either of those teams would be devastating to their tournament hopes and force them to beat another nationally-relevant team.
The Gophers aren’t in literal “must-win” mode yet, but that time is inching closer.