Gophers’ NCAA hopes on life support after loss

MINNEAPOLIS — Before hosting No. 6 Michigan State on Thursday, Minnesota basketball coach Tubby Smith talked about how losses have worn on him this season. They age a coach quickly, Smith said.

Then, his team proceeded to blow a nine-point second-half lead over the Spartans and lost 66-61.

It was evident after the game that this loss also wore heavily on Smith. His postgame news conference was perhaps the shortest it had been all season, lasting just over three minutes. He answered only three questions, sounding dejected with each response.

So perhaps Smith realizes that any hope his team had of sneaking into the NCAA Tournament disappeared with Wednesday’s loss. Minnesota sat on the tournament bubble before the game, and a win over a top 10 team would have been a great resume booster.  

But the Gophers — now 17-11 overall and 5-10 in the Big Ten — couldn’t rise to the challenge, looking lost as Draymond Green, Keith Appling and the Spartans rallied. Michigan State regained the lead with 32 seconds remaining and held on to stay atop the Big Ten standings.

“It looked like our guys were just nervous. It looked like we just panicked, and they turned up the pressure a little bit,” Smith said. “They turned up the pressure because they were behind, got a little more physical, a little more aggressive.

“We just folded under pressure.”

With their postseason fate on the line, the Gophers were nervous? Smith’s players echoed that sentiment. Senior Ralph Sampson III wasn’t on the court for much of the game’s final minutes, but he sensed Minnesota was pressing against the sixth-ranked Spartans.

“I think we got a little jittery at the end,” said Sampson, who had eight points and six rebounds in 25 minutes. “Things got a little bit out of control for us.”

In reality, the Gophers’ tournament hopes probably were dashed Saturday when they lost on the road to Northwestern. Minnesota committed 19 turnovers in the 64-53 loss.

Four days later, the Gophers again had trouble holding on to the ball when it mattered most. After committing just three first-half turnovers, Minnesota gave the ball away 12 times after halftime, including four crucial turnovers in the game’s final 2:33.

Minnesota has now turned the ball over 398 times in 28 games, easily the most in the Big Ten. Because of their carelessness with the ball, the Gophers will now likely be watching the NCAA Tournament from home.

“I was just really disappointed that we didn’t take care of the ball better because that’s something we worked hard on, especially coming off the Northwestern loss where we had (19) turnovers,” Smith said. “It’s disappointing that we play so well for 30, 30-plus minutes. That’s what we’ve had issues with when we go through droughts, just lose our composure and the turnovers.”

The Gophers still have two games remaining against ranked teams, as they host Indiana on Sunday and play at Wisconsin two days later. Minnesota also hosts unranked Nebraska to finish out the regular season.

Even if Minnesota wins out, it will finish with a sub-.500 conference record of 8-10. Three victories would get the Gophers to the 20-win mark, but that still likely would not be enough.

If the Gophers indeed miss out on the NCAA Tournament, they’ll look back at games like Wednesday’s loss to the Spartans in which Minnesota had MSU on the ropes for much of the second half but couldn’t deliver the knockout punch. There also were two unimpressive losses to unranked Iowa, including a two-point defeat at home in early January. Plus the game at home against Wisconsin in which Minnesota battled back to send the game into overtime, only to have nothing left in the tank after regulation.

The Gophers have just two seniors — Sampson and injured star forward Trevor Mbakwe, who tore his ACL in late November. For them, the reality has started to sink in that they likely won’t be invited to the Big Dance in their final season.

“As a senior, you just take a look at things a little differently. You start looking at the team you’re leaving behind and you look at the body of work that you’ve put into the season,” Sampson said. “I feel that the team is strong. A little more maturity and a little more hard work and I think this team would be great.”