INDIANAPOLIS — It was a perfect snapshot as to why Minnesota’s name won’t be called on Selection Sunday for the second consecutive year.
Twice Minnesota had command of its Big Ten quarterfinal game against No. 10 Michigan — scoring nine of the game’s first 10 points and being up nine with 4:33 to go — and still found a way to let a victory slip through its fingers.
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“We played hard, but we didn’t execute when we needed to,” said Andre Hollins, who scored a team-high 21 points, but couldn’t save Minnesota’s season in a 73-69 overtime defeat. “They hit big shots, got offensive rebounds. We turned the ball over way too much and made a lot of mistakes that cost us.”
Without Ralph Sampson III, who sprained his knee in practice Monday, the Gophers knew they needed to rely on their guard play if it wanted to win the school’s first tournament championship. And when Rodney Williams, Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins stepped up, the Gophers looked like the NCAA team they were predicted to be at the start of the season.
Andre Hollins got into the lane for layups consistently, helping the Gophers score 24 points in the paint.
Austin Hollins and Julian Welch were marksmen from three-point range — making five of the team’s nine deep balls — and Williams was his typical aggressive self, which he showed when he slammed home a perfect pass from Andre Hollins to give Minnesota its nine-point edge.
And then, for whatever reason, the aggressiveness vanished following a television timeout.
“We played not to lose instead of playing aggressive,” said freshman guard Joe Coleman, who had four points. “We got a little more tentative. When the pressure is on, you don’t want to make a mistake, and that hurt us.”
The Gophers’ passiveness carried into overtime after the Wolverines closed on an 11-2 run in the final 4:22 of regulation After both Andre Hollins and Williams missed potential game-winning jumpers, they became the only two players to score for Minnesota in overtime, as Michigan’s balance — and Tim Hardaway’s 30 points — proved too much to defend.
The end result was eerily similar to what started the season-ending slide. Against No. 21 Wisconsin, the Gophers missed two shots in the final seconds that would have beaten the Badgers in regulation. Wisconsin outscored Minnesota 17-10 in overtime, starting a six-game losing streak that sent the Gophers spiraling to what looks like an NIT bid.
“We have to switch mentality and refocus because the score is 0-0,” said Andre Hollins, as Minnesota fell to 1-3 in overtime games this year. “We can’t think about losing a lead. We had to go in with a mindset to execute, and we didn’t do that.”
The fact of the matter was Minnesota lacked the same punch in the paint without Sampson and his career averages of 8.1 points and 1.6 blocks per game. Although Sampson’s replacement, Elliott Eliason, grabbed 19 rebounds during the tournament’s two games, he had only two blocks and didn’t attempt a shot against Michigan until the 17:54 mark of the second half.
“We didn’t have to change too much, but we certainly missed (Sampson),” Williams said. “Against a good team, we need to be physical all game. We weren’t, and it bit us in the butt.”
This isn’t the first time the Gophers could use an ill-timed injury as an excuse.
After all, Minnesota needed to win four games in four days to make the NCAA field because the Gophers never figured out how to win after forward Trevor Mbakwe tore his ACL in the seventh game of the season. Yes, the Gophers won their final six nonconference games, but those all happened inside Williams Arena and against teams that won’t be playing postseason basketball.
Of the Gophers’ 12 Big Ten losses, seven came by fewer than seven points or in overtime. Minnesota was swept by Iowa by a combined six points and led No. 6 Michigan State for more than 18 minutes in the second half until 12 second-half turnovers finally caught up to them.
So, add another chapter to a season in which Minnesota had and couldn’t continue its momentum.
“We definitely cost ourselves some games,” Williams said. “We know what we are capable of. We know we are a team that can be a good team that could make a run in the NCAA tournament.”
But because of another lost Big Ten opportunity, the Gophers will have to settle for the NIT.