MINNEAPOLIS — The 2014-15 season has been one gut punch after another for the Gophers men’s basketball team. Too many close losses to count have left Minnesota staring at possibly another NIT berth.
Sunday’s loss, though, was the cherry on top of a season filled with close, disappointing losses.
After Minnesota tied the game with 13.9 seconds to play on a Joey King free throw, Penn State senior D.J. Newbill fired a long-range 3-pointer as time expired to sink the Gophers at Williams Arena by a 79-76 final. Minnesota’s fans sat stunned, not so much that their team lost a close game at the last second, but that they lost yet another close game at the last second.
The Gophers’ locker room was equally as shocked and distraught after the fact. Though in many ways it was a lost season before Sunday’s game, a loss on Senior Day to a Penn State team that previously had three Big Ten wins pounded home that point.
"So many close losses at home, and that one probably hurt the worst out of all of them," said Minnesota senior point guard DeAndre Mathieu.
On a day in which the team’s five seniors were honored before the game, the Gophers came out flat in the first half. Penn State took a 43-34 lead into the locker room at halftime, thanks in part to six 3-pointers.
It’s far from the first time this year that Minnesota allowed a visiting team to get off to a hot start at Williams Arena. Such was the case on Thursday against Wisconsin, and one game before that when lowly Northwestern took a tie game into the locker room at the half. And when Iowa toppled the Gophers in Minnesota earlier this season, it was thanks in part to a nine-point halftime lead for the Hawkeyes.
Since Sunday’s game started so similarly to other Gophers losses, it made perfect sense that it ended like many others, too. Minnesota lost to Iowa on a last-second shot by Jarrod Uthoff. The same thing happened in early January when Ohio State beat the Gophers by two in overtime thanks to a late shot by Marc Loving.
In the latest installment of the Gophers’ heartbreaking losses, Newbill was the culprit. Despite what Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino said was good defense from freshman guard Nate Mason, Newbill still hit the shot that sunk the Gophers’ hopes once again.
"A little bit fitting that we would lose our last regular-season game on a 3-point heave, probably a 25-footer, a challenged shot," Pitino said. "It hasn’t quite gone our way this year. I’m not saying we’re unlucky, but I don’t know if we’ve been lucky. . . . We’ve had a lot of close ones and lost them, but you’ve got to give Penn State credit, certainly."
Gophers senior Mo Walker nearly single-handedly carried Minnesota to a win in what was his last regular-season game at Williams Arena. The Gophers center scored a career-high 26 points and had 11 rebounds. He also shot 14 free throws, hitting 10 of them, and gave Minnesota a late lead with a two-handed dunk.
Yet even a career day for Walker wasn’t enough. Newbill finished with 31 points, with his final three points sending the Gophers home disappointed on Senior Day. It was the eighth Big Ten loss by six points or less this season for Minnesota.
"We had a lot of close games this season, and this falls right into one of those close games," Walker said. "We just ended up on the wrong side of it."
After yet another late-game loss, the wind was seemingly taken completely out of the Gophers’ sails. Even when things weren’t going Minnesota’s way early in the Big Ten season, Pitino’s team still had hopes of making the NCAA tournament. Yet that reality started falling apart as the close losses piled up.
Now there’s a question as to whether the Gophers — who won the NIT championship last season — will even make the NIT this year. Perhaps more importantly, will they have any excitement left if they do wind up playing in the NIT for the second straight season?
Senior guard Andre Hollins was asked that question after Sunday’s loss. The Gophers’ all-time leading 3-point shooter and No. 4 scorer in school history paused before answering.
"It’s different for us seniors," Hollins said. "It’d be very disappointing, but looking ahead, just being competitors, if we go there, we’ll have to make the most of it. We’re still playing basketball, which is awesome. You don’t want to leave our careers with a sour taste in our mouths."
Minnesota has some work to do to get rid of the sour taste from Sunday’s loss.