Northwestern center Alex Olah (22), guard Scottie Lindsey (20) and Gophers big man Maurice Walker (15) rebound in the first half at Williams Arena on Wednesday night. Northwestern edged Minnesota, 72-66.
Brad Rempel/Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
MINNEAPOLIS — Some how, some way, players on the Gophers men’s basketball team will have to put Wednesday’s 72-66 loss to Northwestern behind them. It won’t be easy, though, given how much of a gut punch it was to lose at home to a team that was 2-10 in the Big Ten before Wednesday.
DeAndre Mathieu will do his best to take his mind off the loss by spending time with his young son, Elijah, who often reminds him that sports — and winning and losing — aren’t everything.
"He doesn’t know we lost," Mathieu said following Wednesday’s defeat. "I’ll go home to him. He smiles, he’s happy. It changes the whole day. I’ve got something to look forward to."
It’s not that simple for the rest of the Gophers, who are dealing with their second straight loss after temporarily building momentum by winning their previous three games. Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino admitted before Wednesday’s game that he and the coaching staff talked about the NCAA tournament Monday for the first time all season, noting that the team’s seniors had that on their minds.
The Gophers shouldn’t be worrying about making the NCAA tournament at this point. After falling to 16-11 overall and 5-9 in the Big Ten, making the NIT should be the bigger worry.
Just like in its loss to Indiana, Minnesota struggled to contest the 3-pointer Wednesday. Several days after the Hoosiers drained a school record 18 3-pointers against the Gophers, the Wildcats connected on 15 of 32 attempts from downtown. Minnesota switched from zone defense against Indiana to man-to-man against Northwestern, but it didn’t seem to matter.
"Today, they made a lot of shots. It didn’t even seem like they were hitting the rim. It looked like all net," Mathieu said. "I don’t know what we can do. I guess we’ve got to do a better job contesting."
Minnesota had its own chances on offense but never pulled ahead by more than seven points. That came late in the first half when center Mo Walker hit a mid-range jumper to put the Gophers up 28-21.
The Wildcats went on a 12-0 run — all on 3-pointers — to pull ahead before Minnesota closed out the first half tied at 36. Another Northwestern run early in the second half put the Wildcats up 10 after Tre Demps hit Northwestern’s 13th 3-pointer of the night.
In the end, Pitino simply had to tip his cap to Northwestern, which has now won two straight after losing 10 consecutive games.
"The better team won," Pitino said. "You’ve got to give them credit."
Minnesota has just four regular-season games remaining, and things don’t get much easier from here on out. The Gophers travel to Madison to face a Badgers team ranked in the top five, and then must play at Michigan State on Feb. 26. Two home games against Wisconsin and Penn State close out Minnesota’s schedule.
Well after the dust had settled from Wednesday’s loss, the players in the Gophers’ locker room remained quiet as the frustration and disappointment was still fresh. So, too, were the words of their coach, who was not at all pleased with the way things unfolded at Williams Arena.
"He was really, really upset that we didn’t have any heart," Mathieu said. "This was a letdown. We needed this, a lot like last year (against) Northwestern."
It was this same Wildcats team that dashed the Gophers’ NCAA tournament hopes one year ago when they escaped Minneapolis with a 55-54 win on Feb. 1. Minnesota had two shots to win that game but came up short, and wound up missing the tournament.
That loss to Northwestern last season was one of the most devastating for the Gophers. Minnesota has had some losses this season that were equally hard to swallow, particularly during the early stretch of the Big Ten schedule when Minnesota lost four of its first five conference games by five points or less. There was the overtime loss to Ohio State that the Gophers could have won at home. There was the last-second loss to Iowa in which the Hawkeyes’ Jarrod Uthoff hit a late shot to sink the Gophers.
Yet none of those stung quite like Wednesday’s loss. Needing a win to keep any glimmer of NCAA tournament hopes alive, Minnesota simply didn’t have an answer for Northwestern’s sharp shooting.
"This is easily the most disappointing loss," Mathieu said. "When we really needed it, to let it get away, definitely the most disappointing loss of the year."