MILWAUKEE – The Gophers were one of the hottest teams in college basketball a few weeks ago, riding high with an eight-game win streak. They had goals of winning a conference tournament title and making an NCAA tournament run.
Richard Pitino made Gophers basketball relevant again in his fourth season with the biggest turnaround in Big Ten history.
But Thursday showed he still has work to do to put together a team that can do damage in March. The Gophers’ 81-72 first-round NCAA tournament loss to Middle Tennessee was their third loss in four games.
With their season ending abruptly, it was hard for players to reflect on their success.
“We don’t really believe in moral victories,” junior center Reggie Lynch said. “The only way to actually get success is to win. But honestly, I’m so proud of our guys, because this was one of the historical Gophers teams coming from only an eight-win season last year.”
The Gophers (24-10) were the first No. 5 seed not to be favored against a No. 12 seed since 1999. But this wasn’t the same Minnesota team that had a 7-0 record in February and surged up the Big Ten standings.
Middle Tennessee (31-4) was the third opponent in the past four games to shoot 50 percent or better from the field in a half, joining Wisconsin to end the regular season and Michigan in the conference tournament.
Minnesota also lost the rebounding battle for the third time in the four-game stretch. The Blue Raiders’ 37-24 edge was the first time a non-major conference opponent outboarded Pitino’s team by double digits since a loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee last year. This tournament team wasn’t supposed to look like last year’s bunch.
“They boxed out and took that away from us,” said freshman guard Amir Coffey, who finished with a team-high 17 points. “That’s usually something that we’re good at. They keyed in on it.”
Junior guard and leading scorer Nate Mason was ice cold in the first half and bothered by of a hip injury in the second half, and he finished with a season-low five points on 2-for-10 shooting, to go along with four turnovers.
Missing senior guard Akeem Springs (Achilles’ injury) hurt the Gophers defensively, and they badly missed their top three-point shooting threat.
The Gophers were not looking for excuses after the game, however, despite getting outplayed in every way for most of the afternoon. The Gophers opened with a 7-0 lead, but MTSU found its footing after a timeout.
Minnesota’s last lead in the game was 14-13 with 8 minutes, 47 seconds left in the first half. The Gophers, with their post players struggling with foul trouble, trailed by as much as 17 points in the second half before a 14-2 run finally cut Middle Tennessee’s big lead to four.
Two freshmen pulled the Gophers back into the game. Eric Curry’s three-point play made it 62-58 with 6:43 remaining, and Coffey supplied seven points during the rally.
But the hero for the Blue Raiders in last year’s upset over No. 2 seed Michigan State lifted them again Thursday. Senior forward Reggie Upshaw had five consecutive points, including a three-pointer from the corner to end his team’s three-minute scoring drought. Upshaw finished with 19 points and nine rebounds.
Pitino’s frustration peaked late in the game, and he was called for a technical foul with 1:22 left and the Gophers trailing 74-65.
Middle Tennessee advances to play Saturday in the second round against Butler, which defeated Winthrop in the earlier game in Milwaukee.
Minnesota’s major turnaround season came to a quick end in the tournament, but Pitino tried to put everything into perspective.
“You know, we kind of ran out of gas,” he said. “I told our guys after the game, this tournament is tough because you sit there for five months and do some unbelievable things over 33 games. To flip like we did, our players deserve a lot of credit.”