Defeat to Badgers epitomizes Gophers’ season of disappointment

Gophers head coach Richard Pitino looks on during the second half of Minnesota's loss to Wisconsin at Williams Arena on Thursday.

Jesse Johnson/Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — The chants resounded around the place they call the barn, but they weren’t coming from the Golden Gophers’ packed student section.

No, the chorus of "N-I-T!" and "C-B-I!" as Minnesota big man Bokary Konate shot free throws with 4 1/2 minutes remaining in Thursday night’s 76-63 loss came from a 200-strong host of Wisconsin students that made the 267-mile, four-hour trek from Mad City to Dinkytown. Dressed in crimson red, their cheers rained down from Section 224 at Williams Arena, morphing into a song of "Big Ten Champs" as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

Around the rest of the arena, full to the brim like usual for this border rivalry matchup that was no contest Thursday, silence.

Losing 11 of 17 Big Ten games in what was supposed to be a resurgent year was never part of the plan. Neither was getting drowned out at home, albeit against the sixth-ranked team in the land.

But plans change. And in a season gone sour, Minnesota (17-13, 6-11 Big Ten) has seen its objectives crumble.

Add beating the Badgers to the list.

"We’re definitely all down right now," guard Nate Mason said, "but we’ve just got to hold our heads, just come back strong and try to make a run in the Big Ten tournament."

In front of 14,625 fans and a national television audience on ESPN, the Gophers succumbed to a heavy dose of mistake-free basketball, their own early cold spell and a guy named Frank Kaminsky. A game where everything would’ve needed to go right wound up indicative of a Big Ten slate where little has.

Badgers 76, Gophers 63

Beat Bucky, be respected. Lose a fourth conference contest in five tries, and walk off the floor during an awkward rendition of "The Minnesota Rouser" against a backdrop of mostly-empty seats.

"We definitely felt if we won tonight, we could kind of get our name back out there," guard DeAndre Mathieu said.

But Minnesota’s resume is that of an Associate’s Degree-holder applying for a position that requires a Master’s. The Gophers’ only realistic shot is a catching-fire run through the Big Ten tournament, but it’s hard to believe that’s in the offing with the way Minnesota’s meandered through conference play.

Sunday — senior day for Matheiu, Andre Hollins, Elliott Eliason, Kendal Shell and Mo Walker — against Penn State presents one last chance at grasping momentum before the postseason.

"You’ve just got to compete on Sunday and come away with a win, and then a whole new season starts," forward Joey King said, grasping at the straws that outside-looking-in teams always do this time of year. "Anything can happen."

That’s a long shot at best for a squad that’s dropped six Big Ten games by five points or fewer. Quality wins against Michigan State, Georgia and Iowa — the Gophers’ only triumphs over top-50-RPI teams — aren’t nearly enough to get the defending NIT champs into the NCAA tourney conversation, and they haven’t stolen any games against top-tier teams like the one they faced Thursday.

Minnesota came close Feb. 21 at Wisconsin (27-3, 15-2), hanging around in a game it eventually lost by 10. But this time, a razor-sharp squad intent on claiming its first outright conference crown for the first time in seven years came out scorching hot and withstood a feisty Gophers rally that came up far short.

After Wisconsin hit seven of its first eight shots and went 7 for 10 from behind the 3-point line in the first half, Minnesota trailed by as many as 20 points. But a 24-10 run spanning both frames had the Gophers within 46-40 early in the second, before the Badgers snuck back out in front and nursed a double-digit lead from the 9:45 mark on.

Wooden Award favorite Kaminsky played almost the entire game and had 25 points, six rebounds and seven assists. Sam Dekker scored 20, meaning he and Kaminsky accounted for more than half of Wisconsin’s point production.

Mason led Minnesota with 15 points on 6 of 12 shooting, including 3 of 5 from 3-point range. Walker had a game-high 11 rebounds but struggled to defend Kaminsky, along with the rest of his teammates in a straight-up, switch-heavy defense.

"I don’t think the year is weighing on anybody," said Gophers coach Richard Pitino, whose team a week ago snapped a 15-game losing streak at Michigan State. "I think we lost to one of the best teams in the country. We hate losing, but I think we’ll be ready to roll on Sunday."

Pitino has the benefit of perspective. In his second year on the job, he’s still in the big-picture process of building a winning program in the heart of Minneapolis. Next year might even be a longer step back, depending partly upon where this group finishes and what postseason tournament it’s awarded.

But to the youngsters walking out of the home dressing room with Buffalo Wild Wings to-go boxes in their hands Thursday night, this tastes like dirt.

"I didn’t expect this at all," Hollins said, "but you have to learn from it. It has to make you stronger."

And what did you expect this season?

"I’m not telling you," he said. "I’m sorry. I’ve answered every question for four years. I’m not telling you that one."

Please?

"You know why I’m here."

It was the senior guard’s best Marshawn Lynch rendition. But it also said volumes without saying anything.

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