Gophers focused on improving, carrying momentum through Big Ten play

There was a sense of relief Saturday when the Gophers held on to beat Rutgers at Williams Arena, finally getting that long sought-after Big Ten victory.

Brace Hemmelgarn/Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

MINNEAPOLIS — A weight was lifted off the collective shoulders of the Gophers basketball players when Minnesota earned its first Big Ten win on Saturday.

Yet the reality two days later is that the Gophers are still 1-5 in conference play, even with that much-needed win. The message Richard Pitino has for his team: the win was nice, but there’s still plenty of work to do.

"I still think, honestly, it’s hard not to look at 1-5," Pitino said Monday, one day before Minnesota faces Nebraska on the road. "It’s a long season. We’re not going to get it all back at once. We’ve just got to find a way to go tomorrow and compete to the highest of our ability, be physically and mentally tough."

The disappointment was setting in as the Gophers lost their first five Big Ten games, several of which were close contests. In a few instances, Minnesota blew a late lead or lost on last-second shots, adding to the frustration.

There was a sense of relief Saturday when the Gophers held on to beat Rutgers at Williams Arena, finally getting that long sought-after Big Ten victory. The win over Rutgers came exactly three weeks since Minnesota’s last victory — a non-conference game against UNC-Wilmington on Dec. 27.

"They’re feeling much better about themselves, certainly," Pitino said.

It’s been a bit puzzling to see the Gophers sitting near the bottom of the Big Ten standings at this juncture of the season. Minnesota won the NIT last year with an impressive postseason run and returned many players from last year’s team. The Gophers have seen the emergence of freshman guard Nate Mason, and center Mo Walker has developed into one of the better big men in the Big Ten.

Gophers 89, Scarlet Knights 80

Yet despite all of that Minnesota has had a tough go of things in the Big Ten. One win isn’t going to cure everything that ailed the Gophers, but it’s a start.

"We know we’ve got to dig ourselves out of a hole," said senior guard Andre Hollins, whose season-high 31 points were instrumental in Saturday’s win. "We can’t get complacent. We’ve got to continue to work hard."

Many on the outside of the Gophers’ program believed this year’s squad had the potential to be an NCAA tournament team. And after cruising through the nonconference portion of its schedule to an 11-2 record, it seemed as if Minnesota could simply finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and still get an invite to the big dance.

The early 0-5 hole in conference play did quite a bit to dash Minnesota’s tournament chances. The Gophers have never started 0-4 in Big Ten play and gone on to make the NCAA tournament. But Pitino said his expectations for his team haven’t necessarily changed after six conference games.

"I never set the goal as, ‘You have to make the NCAA tournament or it’s a bust,’" Pitino said. "I never said that to our team. I didn’t say that to our team last year. I thought we really, really overachieved last year and did a lot of good things. And I still think we’re playing good basketball — and we could get much better, obviously."

Hollins was asked Monday what it would take to feel like the Gophers were on a roll and back in the position they want to be. His answer? Win every game.

That’s not realistic in the Big Ten, bit that’s the attitude that Hollins and his teammates are taking. They’re the ones that put themselves in this tough spot, and it’s up to them to get out of it.

"A lot of games it’s lost it’s been because of us, not because of other teams," Hollins said. "We’ve just got to take care of business. We’ve got to continue to finish games and continue to work hard. You learn how to win in practice, so that’s what we’ve been trying to do."

And though the odds are against them, the Gophers still have NCAA tournament hopes — however fleeting that hope may be at 1-5 in the Big Ten."

We don’t talk about the NCAA tournament. We’re living in the present moment," Hollins said. "Like I said at the beginning of the season, we come in every day, work hard and try to make it the best day possible and get better every single day, you’ve got to live with the results."

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