Donnelly: Poor start sends Gophers sliding to second straight loss
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MINNEAPOLIS -- A handful of players slumped into their lockers. Conversations were conducted in hushed voices. Mo Walker sat in front of his locker, towel-covered head in his hands, quietly sobbing.
The Gophers locker room wasn't exactly a festive atmosphere in the moments after their 55-54 loss to Northwestern on Saturday.
You couldn't blame the Gophers for being distraught, disappointed or disgusted with the outcome. Coming off a loss at Nebraska last Sunday, they had a week to shore up their deficiencies, especially defending the 3-pointer. They had a week to absorb the lessons from that four-point loss at Lincoln, a week to continue to tweak the offense and come up with sets that would make up for the loss of leading scorer Andre Hollins.
Instead, they're facing their first two-game losing streak since dropping back-to-back games in Maui in November. In fact, after drawing kudos for splitting a four-game stretch against four ranked conference foes, the Gophers are now 0-2 against Nebraska and Northwestern.
Sure, the excuses are ripe for the picking. They're missing Hollins. Nebraska is a tough beat on the road. Northwestern is much better than in years past (fourth place in the Big Ten when they arrive home in Evanston Saturday evening).
And while all of those excuses have a degree of validity, in the end, if you're a program that wants to be taken seriously in NCAA Tournament discussions, these are the types of games you have to win.
Naturally, much of the postgame chatter will focus on the game's final possession. Trailing by a point with 11 seconds left after an impressive defensive stand, the Gophers eschewed the timeout and put the ball in DeAndre Mathieu's hands. The junior point guard took it to the hoop, where he was met by Northwestern big man Nikola Cerina. Mathieu made contact, didn't get the call, but got off a decent shot that rolled off the rim. Walker grabbed the rebound underneath the hoop but missed the putback as time expired.
Was Mathieu fouled? Was Walker fouled? Should they have called timeout and set up a different play?
In the end, the proper response to all three of those questions is, it doesn't matter. The Gophers didn't lose the game in the last 11 seconds. They lost it in the first 20 minutes.
"We just didn't play well in the first half," Mathieu said. "In the second half we tried to turn it on. You can't do that in this conference - teams are really good. Everybody's good. Anybody can be beat any day and they proved it today."
Indeed, the Gophers sleepwalked through the first half and were fortunate to be trailing by only three points, 32-29. They allowed the Wildcats - 25 percent shooters on 3-pointers in Big Ten play - to hit 6 of 13 from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, Malik Smith - who hit 8 of 12 treys in the loss to Nebraska - was 0-for-7 from downtown in the first half, part of a 1-for-9 team performance before halftime.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino had just watched Nebraska go 11-for-22 on 3-pointers against his team, meaning he's fast becoming an authority on how teams give up a lot of 3s. In the first half on Saturday, it was a combination of things.
"Probably rotating out a couple times," Pitino said. "Missed a couple assignments out of the press. We were in a zone and we guarded something the wrong way, it cost us a 3 right before halftime."
Meanwhile, Smith was in mad-bomber mode, but by necessity. With Hollins sidelined for at least another game because of his severely sprained ankle, the Gophers need Smith to score. He does that better from 20 feet away than 10 feet, so the barrage of 3-pointers was no surprise. And Smith seems to subscribe to the gunner's mentality: If you're hot, keep shooting. If you're cold, keep shooting until you get hot.
After the game, Pitino said he didn't think Smith was taking bad shots - they were just rimming out. And as 1500 ESPN's Scott Korzenowski pointed out during the game, Smith was coming off a career day in Nebraska. The next time out, you're bound to be a little amped up, and it doesn't take much extra juice to push a shot off its course.
Fortunately for the Gophers, Walker had yet another huge first half. He carried them in the first 20 minutes against Wisconsin on Jan. 22, and he reprised that performance on Saturday, going 6-for-7 from the field with three rebounds and an assist in the game's first 20 minutes.
But the second half was a different story. Walker was charged with three turnovers as he and Mathieu had trouble completing a basic entry pass. In 11 minutes he never got back into the flow of the offense. In fact, his put-back miss at the buzzer was his only rebound and field goal attempt of the second half.
Afterwards, Walker was inconsolable. Austin Hollins walked past him, patting his head in a gesture of solidarity. And Walker later tweeted thanks to his teammates for their support. Despite the loss, Pitino took his players' reaction as a positive sign.
"We've got guys crying in the locker room," Pitino said. "I mean, you never want your guys to cry but certainly it's great when they care, and there was a lot of them. So they care about winning. That's the first step certainly towards building a winning program."
For what it's worth, Walker wasn't the only Gopher putting the blame for the loss squarely on his own shoulders.
"It's a tough one, man. It really hurts, because the ball was in my hands in the end and I missed that tough shot," Mathieu said. "But I'll make those sometimes."
Confident. Resilient. As depressing as the atmosphere was in the Gophers' locker room Saturday, there was still a sense that this wasn't a season-derailing defeat.
"We move on," Pitino said. "It's only worth one. We've just got to continue to get healthy and just learn from these mistakes."