WASHINGTON – Gophers coach Richard Pitino had no answers for Michigan’s hot shooting, trailing by as much as 16 points in the first half in Saturday’s Big Ten men’s basketball tournament semifinal.
The fourth-seeded Gophers slowed down the eighth-seeded Wolverines enough to erase their big early deficit. But Derrick Walton Jr. scored 19 of his 29 points in the second half to end any comeback hopes in an 84-77 loss at the Verizon Center.
Nate Mason led the Gophers (24-9) with 23 points, six rebounds and four assists.
Walton shot 8-for-15 from the field and 10-for-10 from the foul line. He also had nine assists for the Wolverines (23-11), who advanced to face Wisconsin in Sunday’s final. The second-seeded Badgers clobbered sixth-seed Northwestern 76-48 in the other semifinal Saturday.
Pitino only used a six-man rotation with senior guard Akeem Springs out for the season after suffering an Achilles’ tendon injury in Friday’s win against Michigan State. The starting backcourt of Mason, Springs’ replacement Dupree McBrayer and Amir Coffey played 40, 40 and 39 minutes Saturday.
“You feel so bad for Akeem and his injury, but it’s very challenging from a team standpoint,” Pitino said. “You have less than a 24-hour period to get guys in the right spot. Some time off will help. We’ll be able to acclimate some other guys, be able to go to the bench a little bit more.”
After reaching their first semifinal since 2010, the Gophers found themselves down 29-13 midway through the first half. The Wolverines, who shot 63 percent in the first half to lead 47-36 at halftime, showed no signs of fatigue playing for the third time in as many days.
Michigan’s players seemed on an emotional high after the drama and attention that followed their evacuation of a team plane that slid off a runway Wednesday. After arriving to Washington, D.C., on Thursday morning, John Beilein’s team beat Illinois by 20 points, then upset top-seeded Purdue in overtime Friday.
That momentum carried into the weekend.
The Gophers won nine of their previous 10 games, but they lacked energy and struggled to communicate defensively in the first half. Michigan scored easily on back-door cuts, while also turning eight first-half turnovers into 15 points.
“The turnovers really hurt us,” Mason said. “We really couldn’t get back in transition like we needed to. First half, we started off very slow, not talking on the defensive end. They took advantage of it.”
Minnesota used a 19-6 run to tie it 55-55 after two three-pointers from McBrayer and one from Mason midway through the second half. But the Wolverines never fell behind, because Walton wouldn’t let that happen.
Walton and Mason went back and forth in the second half. Mason’s shot high off the glass made it 66-63 with 6:35 remaining, but Walton answered with back-to-back three-pointers, including a rainbow shot from 24 feet over Jordan Murphy’s outstretched arms for a nine-point lead.
Michigan led 78-69 after D.J. Wilson’s dunk with 2:18 to play, but the Gophers made one last rally with a 6-0 run. Mason, who finished with 17 points in the second half, pulled the Gophers within 78-75 with 53 seconds left after two straight layups. But Walton hit four free throws in a row to seal the win.
Murphy had 13 points and nine rebounds. McBrayer and Amir Coffey added 14 and 13 points for the Gophers, who are still looking forward to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013.
“You’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” McBrayer said. “Anybody can beat anybody. We have to come out with the mind-set that we’re one of the better teams.”