Just a few days ago, the Gophers men’s basketball team celebrated its official entrance into the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years. Now they’re just one of the many teams that are one-and-done after their 81-72 loss to No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee State on Thursday.
Even before last Sunday’s selection show, perhaps the writing was already on the wall for the Gophers. They rattled off eight straight wins but then lost two of their last three games at the end of the season plus the Big Ten Tournament. There’s one other thing that happened: Losing guard Akeem Springs to an Achilles injury.
While other teams throughout the league lost key players to injury this season, the Gophers remained intact. Reggie Lynch missed a non-conference game against Florida State that the Gophers lost, but that was about it. On their comeback trail after last season’s debacle, they at least didn’t have to worry about injury issues.
Until the most important time of the season: March Madness.
Springs injured his Achilles in the game against Michigan State at the Big Ten Tournament last weekend, ending his season and college basketball career in Minnesota. The Gophers just didn’t have the depth to recover. It certainly showed in their loss to the Blue Raiders.
The Gophers shot 46 percent compared with 48 percent for Middle Tennessee. But the Gophers were out-rebounded 37-24 with just four offensive rebounds. It’s a little jarring for a team that prided itself on defense throughout the season.
“We talk about defending and rebounding,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “We didn’t really do either one.”
Foul trouble plagued the Gophers, specifically Reggie Lynch, once again. What’s worse, a couple of Lynch’s fouls were not good ones. He only played 24 minutes after sitting much of the first half. It’s tough to have such an elite shot blocker sitting on the bench.
One of the bigger shocks, too, was to see the poor game from Nate Mason. He just looked off during parts of the game; Pitino told reporters afterward that Mason injured his hip sometime during the second half. He was scoreless in the first half and finished with just five points (2-of-10, 1-of-7 from 3-point range), three assists and four turnovers. Very un-Mason like.
Dupree McBrayer took on the starting role with Springs out. He scored 16 points, but he also struggled to get going in the first half. The Gophers needed big games from McBrayer and Mason, and that didn’t happen.
The Gophers as a team shot 6-for-21 from beyond the arc and just 3-for-13 in the first half. With all those 3-pointer attempts, the Gophers really could have used Springs on the floor. That was part of his game.
“It’s going to affect us in some way,” said Jordan Murphy. “I mean, we tried our best without him.”
Springs came to the Gophers as a graduate transfer from Milwaukee. He joined the team in September and played in every game this season before his injury, including getting the nod for the starting lineup in January, starting 13 consecutive games. He scored his 1,000th career point this season and finished the year with 303 points (9.5 points per game), 96 rebounds, 43 assists and 18 steals in 32 games.
He led the team with a season-high 23 points in a 85-78 loss to Maryland on Jan. 28. He also hit five 3-pointers in eight attempts in the Ohio State game at home. Just look for his shot from beyond the arc followed by his signature three fingers held up on each hand as the shot fell and he strolled back on defense.
Springs is one of the biggest reasons the Gophers went through their complete reversal from last year.
“Not only has he made great plays, but he’s changed our locker room,” said Pitino, after their win over Nebraska March 2. “He’s made better leaders of everybody. Made everybody more confident.”
It’s that vocal leadership his coach and teammates have talked about all year that made his season-ending injury that much tougher to take. The Gophers weren’t used to playing without him, and his absence immediately hurt their depth.
The loss creates an abrupt end to the Gophers season. It stings for the Gophers faithful. But the turnaround from 23 losses to 24 wins was the best in basketball. The Gophers made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years. The season was still a success, no matter what happened on Thursday.