In a game that served as an opportunity to rebound from a loss on the road to Nebraska, the Gophers came out flat against a hot, yet still suspect, Northwestern team and threw away another prime opportunity to pick up a home win against a beatable conference opponent, dropping their second consecutive game in a 55-54 heartbreaker.
Perhaps even more painful was the way it ended. After the Gophers battled back to tie the game and found themselves with the ball and 11 seconds left, Dre Mathieu missed a contested layup while Mo Walker — who, up to that point, had a spectacular game — duffed an easy bunny that would have given the Gophers the win. Instead of righting the ship with a crucial home win and owning fourth place in the conference, Minnesota fell back with the pack and now finds itself facing three of the next four games on the road.
Walker apparently knew just how big his miss was, as he was reportedly crying in his locker after the game. But even though the game came down to one play, the Gophers as a whole failed to play their way and fell victim to the Northwestern defensive approach. Add in the fact that the team was missing its best player, Andre Hollins, to injury, and it was a recipe for disaster.
Northwestern came out firing in the beginning of the game, and for a team that ranks in the 300s when it comes to three-point shooting, they were uncharacteristically hot. But even though the Gophers battled back with a Walker-heavy approach, they never got over the hump. The Wildcats stymied the Gophers with a man-to-man defense (hey, no 1-3-1!) and prevented any sort of extended cohesion, while Malik Smith was flat broke from long distance, connecting on only 1-9 attempts from deep.
Andre Hollins was clearly missed and his ability to create his own shots and get to line was difficult to duplicate. Austin Hollins had a great second half, but even he wasn’t able to do it alone, as Elliott Eliason and Oto Osenieks were basically MIA. By the end of the game, the Gophers were only 5-9 from the free throw line.
More painful than the loss itself is the sting of a missed opportunity. Any wins in the conference are hard to come by, but home losses against beatable teams are unacceptable. Northwestern, while heading in the right direction, is still Northwestern, and a home contest against the Wildcats is in the “should win” column. The Gophers, again, showed that they play to their opponents level, and did not dictate the pace or flow of the game on their home court. And with two prime opportunities for wins now missed, the Gophers are now forced to make some magic happen against upper-level competition or on the road. Neither is an attractive option.
Let’s hope this isn’t a harbinger of what to expect in February.
- It’s sad to hear that Mo Walker took the loss so hard, but one takeaway from the game was his performance. He looks like a changed player, skills wise. He got great position, showed excellent footwork and great touch around the hoop. That’s now three straight great performances from Walker, who is showing to be a capable, if not equal, complement to Eliason. Four turnovers, though, is concerning. And they did not come at good times.
- Daquien McNeil played a season/career-high 24 minutes in the loss. A product of having Hollins on the bench, McNeil is basically the backup to Mathieu for the immediate future. While he didn’t wow anyone from a scoring angle, he showed that we can trust him to handle the ball and not do anything stupid while he’s on the court. That’s certainly notable.
- Once again, the Gophers left more points at the free throw line than their losing margin, and it now marks two consecutive games that they’ve been suspect from the line. That has to change if they expect to win tight games.
- One game after committing an unthinkable 9 turnovers, Dre Mathieu was much more in control. He took better care of the ball, sure, but he also didn’t get himself in foul trouble, which allowed him to see more court time.