Lincoln, Neb. – It was only fitting that the game ended with the same theme that plagued the Gophers throughout: complete disarray.
Given the chance to salvage what wound up being a dramatic letdown, Minnesota — which never led — responded with the same lost look that sent the Gophers to a 53-51 defeat before a crowd of 13,194 on senior night in Nebraska.
After a five-second call on the Huskers (14-16, 5-12 Big Ten), the Gophers (20-10, 8-9) — who started the same leftover lineup from their own senior day game against Penn State last Saturday — had a gleaming opportunity down by three with 8.4 seconds remaining.
But the inbounds pass never made its way to sophomore guard Andre Hollins — the person the play was designed for — instead culminating in a three-point shot by junior guard Maverick Ahanmisi, who clanked his prayer. When Nebraska got the rebound, the Gophers fouled and the Huskers did what Minnesota failed to do all night: hit the free throws to seal it.
“It was a little hectic because we didn’t have any more timeouts,” Hollins said. “The play was designed for me to get a handoff or come off a down screen, but Mav thought he had a good shot and I trust my teammates. Unfortunately it didn’t go in for us.”
In the end, Hollins was again the bystander, just like Minnesota’s entire guard troupe was for most of an evening dominated by Nebraska seniors Brandon Ubel (15 points, six rebounds) and Dylan Talley (12 points, three rebounds, three assists). Trevor Mbakwe (15 points, six rebounds) did his best to keep the Gophers in a game they looked doomed to drop from the start, but without much help until the very end, his effort was in vain.
Two games after beating then-top-ranked Indiana, the Gophers looked poised to simply tweak their game as they knocked aside the light remaining competition down the stretch.
Instead, with only two games remaining in the regular season, Gophers coach Tubby Smith decided to make large-scale changes, throwing out a starting lineup that featured Julian Welch and Andre Ingram, with Andre Hollins — who went scoreless through the first 13 minutes — coming off the bench.
Ingram paired with Elliott Eliason as the Gophers’ unlikely early sparks, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Huskers from jumping out to a 23-21 lead at the break.
Smith shook his head when considering that the team could have gotten its emotions tangled up once more in a damaging way.
“I hate to think that, but what else can you look at?” he questioned. “That’s part of it. It seems like [that] every time we put together a good run.”
Even so, the Gophers rebounded in the second half, overcoming rough performances from the free throw line (10-for-20) and the field (38 percent) to challenge late.
Mbakwe led the team on a 10-3 run, scoring all but one of those points, and Andre Hollins hit his first basket of the night, a three, to put Minnesota within 39-37. Then with 2:15 remaining, Hollins hit a pair of free throws to tie the score at 46 before Nebraska prevailed and got the final big rebound.
“If we make a couple free throws here, get a stop here, it’s a different game,” Mbakwe said. “But you can’t go on the road and shoot 50 percent from the free-throw line and have the lapses that we did at the end of the game and expect to win.”