EVANSTON, ILL. - Tubby Smith urged Blake Hoffarber to call a timeout near the break. The senior tried to signal, but the refs didn't see him.
As Hoffarber walked toward the sideline after an official finally blew the whistle, Smith charged and yelled at him during the Gophers' 68-57 loss at Northwestern on Wednesday night. It was another defeat suffered after they had held a late edge.
Smith went at Hoffarber about not taking the ball hard to the basket and drawing fouls. This time, however, Hoffarber fired back at Smith, defending himself. He shrugged his shoulders, motioned with his hands and screamed, too.
"Any time you're losing, people aren't in a good mood, myself included," said Hoffarber, who went 1-for-5 on three-pointers, scored five points and grabbed seven rebounds. "I don't think I've ever gone through a losing streak like this, and I don't think Coach has either. ... Any time you're losing like this, I think people are just trying to fire other people up, and emotions come out."
Smith's players share his frustration.
He is working through his worst season as a head coach in nearly 20 years, as the Gophers fell to 17-12 and 6-11 in the Big Ten. His last such struggles came in his second year as a Division I head coach, when he guided Tulsa to a 15-14 record.
His streak of 17 years with at least 20 victories, longest active run in major college basketball, is in jeopardy. He has lost eight of the past nine games.
Smith makes $2 million a year, he has a national championship ring at home and he doesn't have any solutions.
"I don't know. We've turned it over. You've gotta have people that can make plays and score, make shots and get to the free-throw line," he said of the latest collapse.
The Gophers held a 41-31 lead with 13 minutes to play.
Freshman Maverick Ahanmisi started at point guard so Hoffarber could return to his natural shooting guard position. Ahanmisi played well in the first half. But his costly turnover resulted in a three-point play for Alex Marcotullio, who scored 18 points, and a 46-45 advantage for Northwestern with 6:48 to play. The Wildcats never looked back on Senior Day, getting 18 points from Juice Thompson and outscoring the Gophers 37-16 after Minnesota took that 10-point lead.
Before Wednesday's loss, the Gophers were outscored 25-2 in the closing minutes of back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Michigan. Trevor Mbakwe's 14 points and 12 rebounds, his 17th double-double of the season, couldn't help his team avoid its second four-game losing streak in Big Ten play and third loss in a row at Northwestern (17-12, 7-11), meaning the Big Ten tournament will be their last chance to earn a trip to the NCAA tournament.
A short message on a social media hub put a touch of optimism on the Gophers' chances. And then -- like the way they finish games -- the hope fizzled.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mbakwe tweeted that Gophers starting point guard Al Nolen planned a return Sunday against Penn State. Then, he amended his original tweet, citing bad information, and said Nolen won't play this weekend.
After his team's loss later that night, Smith only mentioned the possibility that the senior co-captain might return in time for the Big Ten tournament.
"Hopefully we can get him back by the Big Ten," Smith said. "I know he's doing the bone stem and treatment and doing whatever he can."
Asked if he knew anything about Mbakwe's tweet, Smith said, "I don't bother with the tweet."
Everyone in the room laughed, the only lighthearted moment of the entire news conference.