Just minutes after the Gophers lost 55-54 to Northwestern, Minnesota’s big man sat at his locker with his No. 15 jersey over his head and his hands over his face as he tried to muffle the sobbing. After escaping briefly to the shower, he returned and again sat in disbelief. This time a blue towel hid the tears.
Senior Austin Hollins walked across the locker room and patted Walker on the head but didn’t say a word, unable to fully shake his teammate from the pain of defeat.
Every loss hurts, but this one seemed to sting the Gophers more than the rest.
"Certainly, it’s good when they care," said first-year coach Richard Pitino. "You’ve got guys crying in the locker room. You never want your guys to cry, but certainly it’s great when they care. There was a lot of them, so they care about winning. That’s the first step towards building a winning program."
Point guard DeAndre Mathieu was also frustrated moments after the final buzzer sounded at Williams Arena. His layup with just seconds remaining fell short, and Walker’s putback attempt also missed. The Gophers had two golden opportunities to steal a win from the pesky Wildcats, but the ball simply didn’t bounce their way.
Many of the 12,744 Gophers fans voiced their opinion as they felt that Mathieu was fouled on his layup attempt. Pitino seemed to agree as he barked at officials, imploring them for a whistle. After the game, however, neither the players nor their coach commented on the referees.
The Gophers’ final play was set up after Northwestern guard Tre Demps airballed a shot with 11.9 seconds remaining and the Wildcats leading by a point. Minnesota wanted to get the ball into the lane, and that’s exactly what Mathieu did.
Yet, after some contact in the paint by Northwestern’s Nikola Cerina, Mathieus’ shot was short of the rim. Though Walker was able to corral the rebound with two seconds remaining, he also couldn’t capitalize as his layup went over the rim and fell into a scrum of players from both sides before the clock hit 0:00.
As his Gophers teammates lined up to shake hands, Mathieu stayed behind, crouching on the court as he struggled to comprehend the crazy finish that just took place.
"Mo did a good job grabbing the rebound. After that, I don’t know what happened. I was on the ground," Mathieu said. "Coach said no comment on the refs, so I really don’t have much to say about that. It can be on you guys if you think it was a foul or not, but I have no say in it."
The loss dropped the Gophers to 4-5 in the wide-open Big Ten. A win would have kept Minnesota in fourth place in the conference after Wisconsin lost earlier in the day to Ohio State. Instead, it’s the Wildcats who sit ahead of the Badgers, Buckeyes and Gophers in the standings.
Saturday marked Minnesota’s second straight loss by four points or less, and the third such defeat in the Big Ten this year. While some of the Gophers players insisted after this loss that each one hurts just as much, the emotion in the locker room said otherwise.
"Close ones always hurt," said center Elliott Eliason. "Especially since it’s at home, that’s never fun to lose. We’ve got more games to play, but we put ourselves in a bad position now."
A slow start didn’t help Minnesota’s case Saturday, as Northwestern jumped out to an early 19-9 lead thanks to some hot shooting from 3-point range. Yet the Gophers battled back and cut the deficit to three points at halftime, led by 12 first-half points from Walker.
Neither team ran away with things in the second half — the biggest second-half lead for either side was three points — and the game looked destined to go down to the wire. Sure enough, that’s exactly how Saturday’s contest played out as Northwestern escaped.
In a close game like this one, the Gophers certainly could have used junior guard Andre Hollins. Instead, Minnesota’s leading scorer watched from the bench as he continues to recover from an ankle injury he suffered two games earlier against the Badgers. Pitino said Hollins could realistically return for Minnesota’s game against Indiana, but he knows the Gophers could use him on the court as soon as possible.
"We need him back," Pitino said. "He’s one of the better guards in the league. It’s silly for us to think it’s going to be easy to replace a guy who’s scored 1,000 points and could be one of the all-time leading scorers in school history."
Even without Hollins in the lineup, Minnesota had plenty of chances to win this one. Going 5-for-9 from the free throw line in a one-point loss certainly didn’t help. Neither did giving up eight 3-pointers — or hitting on just 3-of-14 shots from downtown on offense.
In the end, Saturday’s loss counts just the same as any other in the standings. Knowing what could have been, though, made it especially tough for the Gophers to stomach.
"We move on. It’s only worth one," Pitino said. "We’ve just got to continue to get healthy and learn from these mistakes."