Richard Pitino hasn’t seen the Gophers men’s basketball team at full strength this season since late November.
The fifth-year coach and his players have tried not to use that as an excuse, but the Gophers lost for the sixth time in seven games shorthanded Tuesday night 77-69 to Northwestern in front of an announced 11,302 at Williams Arena.
“I thought we wore down,” Pitino said. “They’re all giving everything. We just got to be smarter. We’ve got to be able to rely when we’re tired to go get that stop. I just thought we wore down in that second half.”
The Wildcats faced a 10-point first-half deficit and trailed 40-34 at halftime. But they shot 54 percent in the second half behind Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law, who had 18 points apiece.
Nate Mason tied a Big Ten season-high with 25 points and also had nine assists, but he went scoreless in the last 9 minutes, 7 seconds. The Gophers senior point guard played at least 40 minutes for the third time in four games.
The Gophers are the only Big Ten team with four starters averaging more than 30 minutes a game. And it seems to be taking a toll mentally and physically at the end of games. Maryland, Ohio State and Northwestern have outscored Minnesota 120-85 in the second half of the last three losses.
Trying to figure out the center spot without suspended Reggie Lynch, Pitino unveiled a new smaller starting lineup that put up points playing at a faster pace in the first half. But the Gophers lost the rebounding battle 37-33 and were outscored in the paint 26-12 in the second half.
Junior forward Davonte Fitzgerald started for the first time in his Gophers career, which moved 6-foot-7 junior Jordan Murphy to center. Fitzgerald finished with just three points in 24 minutes. Murphy was held to 10 points and nine rebounds.
After Northwestern erased a 10-point deficit to take the lead midway through the second half, Fitzgerald’s three-pointer from the corner gave the Gophers (14-9, 3-7 Big Ten) a 59-58 advantage. But the Wildcats (13-9, 4-5) responded with six straight points from McIntosh to maintain control.
Dupree McBrayer, who missed three games this season because of injuries to his lower left and right legs, was helped off the court with 3:44 left in the first half after landing hard on a charging call.
The junior guard couldn’t put weight on his left leg, but McBrayer returned to the game in the second half and scored 11 points in 33 minutes. McBrayer and Amir Coffey (right shoulder) were held out of practice for precautionary reasons this week, but they tried to grind it out less than 100 percent Tuesday night.
“My mom always told me to be tough,” McBrayer said. “So even though I’m hurt, I’m trying to go out there and help this team win.”
Coffey, who returned after a five-game absence in Saturday’s loss against Ohio State, missed an earlier 23-point loss at Northwestern. But he had 15 points before fouling out late Tuesday.
With players missing games and practice the past couple months, it has been tough for Minnesota to have any chemistry on the court.
“Very hard to get continuity and offensive flow and chemistry,” Pitino said about being shorthanded. “It’s hard when you’re down two guys and two other guys can’t practice. You want to rest but want to get better. It is challenging to say the least.”