LINCOLN, NEB. – In his first start as a Gopher, Malik Smith looked more than ready to fill injured guard Andre Hollins’ shoes.
Unfortunately for the Gophers men’s basketball team, until the final minutes no one else in maroon and gold did in an 82-78 loss to Nebraska on Sunday at the new Pinnacle Bank Area.
Smith, the transfer from Florida International, had a stellar performance, matching a career high with 29 points and tying a school record with eight three-pointers. He also had no turnovers. But as a whole, the Gophers showed in painstaking detail how replacing Hollins will require so much more than an aggressive Smith.
Minnesota allowed a Nebraska team that came into the game ranked 10th in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency to shoot 50 percent from the field and make 11 three-pointers. Terran Petteway was particularly damaging, finishing with 35 points on 10-for-15 shooting with four three-pointers.
On the other end, the Gophers (15-6, 4-4) went just 16-for-25 from the free-throw line, had 13 turnovers — nine from point guard DeAndre Mathieu — and only one other Minnesota player joined Smith in double-figure scoring.
“We knew we were going to miss him,” Smith said of Hollins, who severely sprained his left ankle last week against Wisconsin. “We just need everybody to step up, it can’t just be one person. We have to step up collectively, and we didn’t all do that today.”
Incredibly, the Gophers picked up the slack at the very end, storming back from a double-digit deficit to come within two points with 2.7 seconds left after Daquein McNeil followed Petteway’s two missed free throws with a score in transition.
But a game full of defensive deficiencies couldn’t be solved by a handful of sharper minutes. The Gophers were forced to foul Petteway again, and this time the Huskers guard made good on his chance, hitting both free throws and sending Nebraska (10-9, 2-5) to its second Big Ten victory of the year. Its only loss at home this season is a one-point heartbreaker to Michigan.
“There’s a reason why we’re 4-4 in the league,” Pitino said. “We guard vs. Wisconsin. We didn’t do a great job tonight. And you’re going to sit around .500 until you can defend, night in and night out.”
After falling behind by as many as 15 points in the second half, the Gophers began to wake up with just over a minute to play. Mathieu made a three and Austin Hollins and Joey King each made a field goal (Hollins’ was a three) and two free throws before McNeil’s basket.
When the game was over, Pitino entered the locker room unable to muster a tirade, Smith said. Instead, the coach quietly made his disappointment known — a reaction that felt much worse than yelling, Smith said.
Once after beating Ohio State and once after beating Wisconsin, Minnesota has struggled to maintain the momentum, falling by 21 at Iowa after the Buckeyes win and then losing at Nebraska in one of its most sluggish performances of the year in Lincoln.
“I think it shows you how far we have to go as a team to be competitive at a high level,” said center Elliott Eliason, who was beating himself up for his subpar performance in his home state. “We’ve got a long ways to go still. Every time I think we’re there, we do something like, this and it just shows we’re not there.”