In the underbelly of Williams Arena, life went on. Players showered, and changed out of their sweaty jerseys. They chatted, stared up at the basketball game playing on the giant TV, and fiddled with the boxes of Buffalo Wild Wings placed at their lockers.
No. 6 Wisconsin had just upended the dreaming Gophers 76-63, halting any momentum from the previous upset over No. 25 Michigan State and any far-fetched hopes of the NCAA tournament. But Thursday’s loss was only the latest in a long parade of heartbreaks that capsized a once-promising Year 2 in coach Richard Pitino’s short tenure — one billed as a celebration of four critical seniors playing at their peak.
Now, as much as anything, the Gophers seemed exhausted.
“I didn’t expect this at all,” Hollins said of the Gophers’ 6-11 conference record heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale at home against Penn State. “But it happened. You have to learn from it — it has to make you stronger and I think we learned from it as a team. But we’re not done yet. We’ve got to keep working hard, we’ve got to work hard until the final buzzer sounds.”
Before Sunday’s matinee, the four Gophers scholarship seniors — Hollins, Mo Walker, Elliott Eliason and DeAndre Mathieu — along with walk-on guard Kendall Shell, will be honored on the Williams Arena court for their contributions over long careers. All of them except Mathieu, who arrived from Central Arizona College before last season, have been at Minnesota for at least four years. Walker and Eliason, who both redshirted their first year, logged five years apiece.
Lauded as the most meaningful senior class in a decade, the main foursome provided a pair of centers and an experienced and potentially dynamic senior backcourt.
But the revelry in their last days at the university will be more muted. Expected to be the key pieces in taking an NIT championship team last year to the NCAA tournament, the veteran bunch fell short.
In the biggest game of the year on Thursday, Hollins — hot and cold all season — had nothing in the tank, scoring just five points on 2-for-9 shooting. Once in the conversation to claim the all-time scoring record, Hollins has endured both the worst stretch of his career and the best in the last three months.
“I didn’t put my team in a situation to win,” he said of his earlier slump. “I think the hardest thing about that was staying positive and being a leader through that stretch. That was the hardest part. Not playing well and still having to be that leader on the floor, I think that’s by far one of the hardest things you have to do in sports. And I think I overcame that.”
Walker, a huge but inconsistent piece of this year’s team, couldn’t make another big stride this season. He’s become a bona fide post scorer, but never elevated his status to becoming one of the best centers in the Big Ten, a goal he and Pitino publicly talked about before the season. Thursday, he had 11 rebounds but was otherwise lackluster against national Player of the Year favorite Frank Kaminsky, a motivating matchup if there ever was one.
Mathieu had seven points Thursday and a few clutch shots, but off the bench — he was replaced in the starting lineup by freshman Nate Mason two weeks ago. A season after receiving the team’s only All-Big Ten honorable mention, Mathieu has had his moments, but mostly hasn’t been the same player.
Eliason, for the second game in a row, didn’t even get off the pine. His role has been reduced from 35-game starter a year ago, to one in which he’s played just two minutes in the last three games.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “When you don’t play in a win, you’re happy for your teammates. You’re ecstatic for what they’ve done. But in a loss, you start to blame yourself. What could you have done to help them? It’s hard. It’s frustrating. If you’re playing, it’s like you could have done this and this. But when you’re sitting out, you just don’t know. It’s very frustrating. But you don’t control that.”
In Thursday’s postgame news conference, Pitino deflected any questions about the underperformance of his veterans to talk of his youth — the slight silver linings in a year that has otherwise featured so many disappointments.
Mason’s strong guard play was the highlight vs. the Badgers, while center Bakary Konate had his best game of the season, and offered glimpses of a bright future ahead.
The veterans? At times they seemed locked up under the pressure of the last chance to redeem their season, a test they couldn’t quite convert.
“I don’t think they think like that,” Pitino said. “They’re college seniors. I don’t think they’re thinking legacies. They’re like 22 years old.”
Now, instead of the glistening cap the players had reached for — the NCAA tournament — the Gophers are most likely headed for the NIT, again.
A year ago, they eagerly attacked its fate after falling short of the Big Dance, plowing to the NIT title at Madison Square Garden. This year, a berth in the secondary tournament might not be so embraced. For Walker, Eliason and Hollins, it would be the third time in four years.
Asked if he thought back on his career at the university, Hollins first replied “not really” — before bringing up the one year the Gophers had a different postseason fate.
“Sophomore year, we made it to the NCAA tournament,” he said. “That was the highlight.”
Said Mathieu: “I don’t know if you want to be back-to-back NIT champions. I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s good to keep winning. But I don’t know.”