COLUMBUS, OHIO – DeAndre Mathieu shoved his luggage under the team bus, turned around to face the small cluster of reporters waiting for him and heaved a deep sigh.
“Here we go again,” the Gophers point guard said.
It’s hard to blame him for being exhausted.
Exhausted by his basketball team putting up big leads it can’t sustain. Exhausted by watching one meaningful game after another slip through the Gophers’ fingers. Exhausted by trying to explain the same follies and shortcomings after each one.
Because at this point, such performances are a little too familiar.
Saturday night at Ohio State, the Gophers had an opportunity to rise to the occasion and tip dwindling NCAA tournament odds in their favor. Instead, they perpetuated the same struggles that have plagued them all season, letting up on their intensity when they needed it the most.
Unable to conjure the strong play that took them to a double-digit halftime lead, and unable to find an answer for the high-flying Buckeyes in the second half, the Gophers looked nothing short of defeated as they walked off the Value City Arena court after limping to a 64-46 loss.
“I think the hardest challenge for our team is going to be our mental toughness now,” said a watery-eyed and visibly angry Andre Hollins, who led the Gophers with 13 points.
“Physically I think we’re fine. I think it’s the mental aspect of the game we’re going to have to conquer.”
The 24th-ranked Buckeyes (22-6, 9-6 Big Ten) scored as many points (46) in the second half as the Gophers did all game, converting 56.7 percent of their shots after being held to 27.3 percent shooting in the first half.
After a quick layup from Mathieu at the start of the second half put the Gophers up 30-18, Ohio State held the Gophers without a basket for nearly seven minutes, going on a 17-0 run to take a 35-30 lead.
Sam Thompson (19 points, four rebounds) proved to be unstoppable, particularly in transition.
The 6-7 junior forward scored 16 points in the final 20 minutes — including a stretch of 10 consecutive Ohio State points — while his three dunks had the announced crowd of 18,809 screaming with glee.
Meanwhile, the Gophers (17-11, 6-9), who had only four turnovers in the first half, had nine in the second, some of them drawing comparisons to their previous game, their particularly sloppy home loss to last-place Illinois on Wednesday.
“We hijack ourselves,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “We don’t allow ourselves to win. We do some things turnover-wise that are just inexplicable, and they lead to baskets for them. You can’t do that against a very good team.”
The Gophers led 28-18 at halftime — their strong defensive effort, 6-for-6 effort from the free-throw line and solid ballhandling making up for a sluggish offensive start.
But, as it has all year, keeping that advantage proved to be another task altogether.
With the Gophers teetering on the edge of the NCAA tournament bubble, they still have two opportunities to gain another victory over a ranked team in their next two games, but they know their chances are quickly running out.
And when the team begins to fall apart, as it has after so many strong starts this year, it’s tough not to be reminded of all of the other moments in the past, a patchwork of “almosts” that have put the Gophers in their current precarious predicament.
“It was on my mind,” said Mathieu, who scored 12 points. “If we go out there and lay an egg, they’re going to jump us. And we went out there and laid an egg and they jumped us. They turned up their defense and we crumbled.”