ANN ARBOR, MICH. – After the final buzzer at Crisler Arena marked the Gophers’ 66-56 loss Saturday, coach Richard Pitino had a singular message for each of the Michigan players he shuffled through the handshake line:
“ ‘Go pro,’ he said he told them. “ ‘Get out of here.’ ”
There is not much debate — in the Big Ten, where Michigan clinched at least a share of the conference title, or nationwide, where it is ranked No. 16 — that the Wolverines have plenty of talent.
In the Gophers’ second-to-last game of the regular season, Michigan (21-7, 13-3 Big Ten) flexed its talent in impressive fashion, knocking down nine three-pointers, shooting 50 percent from the floor and holding off a scrappy visitor that threatened to ruin its clinching party.
Even the unlikely decision by the entire Wolverines roster to leave school after the season won’t change the position the Gophers are in now, teetering dangerously on the NCAA tournament bubble.
For a while Saturday, it looked as if the Gophers would turn those tides.
After falling behind 31-20 at the half, the Gophers (18-12, 7-10) came within 48-46 with 7 minutes, 22 seconds to go when Andre Hollins made a pair of free throws one possession after hitting a three-pointer. Then the Gophers withstood the first Wolverines surge and pulled back within 54-52 with 4:34 left when Mo Walker converted a three-point play.
But with the momentum there for the Gophers to take, a loose ball on the next possession was saved by Spike Albrecht and wound up in the hands of Michigan teammate Jordan Morgan, who floated in a short jumper. His basket ignited a 12-4 finishing run.
“That changed the game,” Pitino said of the missed opportunity, which saw Albrecht claim the ball instead of Joey King after a miss by Nik Stauskas. “It was as simple as a 50-50 ball. They got it, we didn’t.”
The Gophers put themselves in a tough place in the second half after a sloppy end to the first. They had seven turnovers by halftime, letting a 13-7 start bolstered by strong offensive play from Elliott Eliason crumble into an 11-point deficit as Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III took off.
Stauskas tossed a lob to Robinson, who finished at the rim to get the crowd on its feet. And less than a minute later, Robinson followed a three-pointer from Stauskas with a layup just before the break, turning a four-point lead quickly to 11. Stauskas finished with 21 points, making five three-pointers.
“Live-ball turnovers are the biggest thing,” Eliason said. “They come right back down and knock down a three. They go on a run, knock down a few things, then you’re kind of deflated. You throw up a shot, you miss it and it just kind of snowballs on you.”
Now, with only two weeks until Selection Sunday, the Gophers have left the NCAA selection committee plenty of room for interpretation. The Gophers fell to 2-7 in Big Ten road games and no longer have the opportunity to reach .500 in the league.
Still, they can help their cause by beating Penn State at home next Sunday, then following that with at least one victory in the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis the following week.
“We control our own destiny,” said senior Austin Hollins, who led the Gophers with 16 points.
“We’re capable of getting into the NCAA tournament, we’re capable of making a run. We’ve just got to come back and work even harder, work that much harder to get it done.”