Derrick Walton Jr. got hot early, Duncan Robinson hit clutch shots late and Michigan sneaked past the late-surging Gophers 82-74 on Wednesday night at Williams Arena.
Minnesota, looking limp for most of the game and down by as many as 19 points, rallied to trail only 74-72 with 1 minute, 37 seconds remaining but once again came up short. Michigan’s Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman converted a three-point play out of the ensuing timeout, outmuscling Gophers senior Carlos Morris and hitting a layup before being fouled.
“We told our guys you’ve got a foul to give, you cannot let him get the ball at the rim,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “I thought that kid [Abdur-Rahkman] was physical, it was a good physical play. We’ve got to foul him earlier on that. We can’t do that.”
After Nate Mason missed a three-point shot, Morris got a steal for another chance but threw it away with 31 seconds left and Minnesota was forced to foul down the stretch. The Wolverines, who played without injured star Caris LeVert for the 11 consecutive game despite announcing he was cleared to play, made five of six from the line to seal the win, their ninth in a row over the Gophers.
The Gophers (6-18, 0-12 Big Ten) have lost 13 consecutive games, 16 of the past 17 and are off to their worst start to Big Ten play in program history, topping the 1922-23 team’s 0-11 mark.
And there are major land mines ahead: Minnesota faces No. 4 Iowa on the road and No. 2 Maryland at home in its next two games before mercifully getting a matchup with fellow Big Ten cellar-dweller Rutgers on Feb. 23.
“We’ve got nothing to lose,” Morris said. “We’re playing hard, and we’ve got nothing to lose.”
The Gophers have lost seven league games by eight points or fewer, but initially, this one looked as if it would be anything but close.
After a six-day layoff from Thursday’s blowout loss at Northwestern, the Gophers looked similarly disconnected for most of the night against the Wolverines (18-7, 8-4), who went 14-for-25 from three-point range. Walton led the way with 26 points. Abdur-Rahkman scored 16 while not missing a shot (5-for-5 from the field, including three three-pointers, and 3-for-3 on free throws).
After falling behind by 19 in the second half, the Gophers suddenly woke from their slumber.
Unable to turn the momentum from beyond the arc, where Minnesota was 4-for-19, the Gophers chipped away at the deficit. Minnesota, down 70-55 with 7:23 left, launched a 13-1 run in which the typically line-challenged Gophers made nine of 10 free throws to pull within 71-66. Minnesota hit a season-best in Big Ten play 84.2 percent (16-for-19) from the free-throw line.
Robinson followed with his fourth three-pointer, but the Gophers got three consecutive layups to pull within two.
“We got more aggressive and started using our speed as a weapon,” said Mason, who scored 19 points. “Next game, we have to start using it at the beginning.”
The early defensive woes came back to bite the Gophers.
Leaving big gaps on the perimeter, the Gophers fell into a double-digit pit quickly, allowing nine three-pointers in the first half, including a 5-for-6 showing from Walton, who entered the break with 19 points and the Wolverines up 42-28.
“We’re getting more shots up which I always like, we made more free throws which is nice. We shot 57 percent, we had great heart,” Pitino said. “But at some point here come on, let’s get some wins.”