MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota’s locker room was silent just minutes after the Gophers dropped their Big Ten opener to visiting Michigan by a 63-60 final. The players knew they let this one slip away.
After a solid nonconference slate that had Minnesota at 11-2 entering Thursday’s conference opener, the Gophers and first-year coach Richard Pitino were confident they were prepared for the rigors of the Big Ten. Yet even though the Wolverines were short-handed, they showed Pitino’s team that it still has some work to do to compete with the conference’s top schools.
"You hate to learn the hard way," said Gophers center Elliott Eliason. "But sometimes it’s the best way to learn."
This wasn’t the same Michigan team that made it to the national championship last year, although several Gophers players made reference to that title run after the game. Instead, this was a Wolverines squad that lost talented big man Mitch McGary to an injury, possibly for the season. And in Thursday’s tilt at Williams Arena, Michigan also lost forward Glenn Robinson III to an ankle injury early in the second half.
The window of opportunity was wide open for the Gophers to win Pitino’s first-ever Big Ten game. Instead, Minnesota missed six free throws and turned the ball over 15 times — including nine in the second half. On top of that, the Gophers shot just 39.6 percent from the floor, including a combined 4-for-19 shooting by leading scorers and team leaders Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins.
When Robinson limped off the court and headed to the locker room early in the second half, it appeared as if Michigan was out of bullets with which to fend off the Gophers. Yet the Wolverines got big second-half contributions from the likes of Nik Stauskas, Jon Horford and Zak Irvin, who made five shots from downtown.
Minnesota ran into trouble when Eliason picked up his fourth foul of the game with 9:07 to play. That resulted in a trip to the bench for Eliason, who was the Gophers’ best player up to that point. He finished the game with 10 points, 10 rebounds and a pair of blocks, but was limited down the stretch due to foul trouble.
Despite all of that, the Gophers still had a chance to capture what began as a winnable game in the first place. Malik Smith hit a 3-pointer in the corner to cut Michigan’s lead to 60-57 with 27.3 seconds remaining. On the Gophers’ next possession, Smith was fouled on a 3-point shot and buried all three free throws to cut the lead to one point with 5.6 seconds remaining.
With a chance to tie the game at the buzzer, the Gophers watched as a last-second heave from point guard DeAndre Mathieu missed, dropping Minnesota to 0-1 in the Big Ten. Pitino knows there were plenty of teachable moments for his players — some of whom, like Pitino, were experiencing their first Big Ten game.
"Certainly a disappointing loss," Pitino said. "I thought at the end of the game, when they had the opportunities to make big plays, they did. And when we had opportunities to do it, we just didn’t do it. There’s a lot of stuff that we can learn from and get better from, and there’s also a lot of stuff that we did well."
Some viewed Minnesota’s Big Ten schedule as an early opportunity to start 3-0 in the conference. After hosting Michigan, the Gophers now host Purdue on Sunday before playing at Penn State next week. Thursday’s loss obviously squashes that notion of three wins to open the Big Ten slate.
Despite dropping a game his team could have — and probably should have — won, Pitino remained focused on the big picture following the loss. He inherited a program that had an empty recruiting class and had to scramble to fill his roster before the season started. By winning 11 games out of conference, Pitino and the Gophers started to open some peoples’ eyes — including Michigan coach John Beilein’s.
"I think he’s well on his way," Beilein said of Pitino. "Minnesota’s going to be a good team for a long time."
A win Thursday would have been the perfect start to Pitino’s Big Ten career and given his team the confidence that it can compete in one of the best conferences in college basketball. The 31-year-old Pitino may be young, but he realizes that there are plenty more games on the schedule before it’s all said and done.
"I just told them, ‘Listen, I know you all wanted to start the Big Ten season with a win at home. You’ve been playing well,’" Pitino said. "But this is a marathon, not a sprint. We’ve got to understand that we’re just building this. They’ve got guys that were just building this. They’ve got guys that were on that team that went to a national championship game last year. We’re at the infancy stages of this.
"It’s so easy to stay together to win, but it’s really hard to stay together when you lose. We’ve got to continue to stay in the process and just be positive."