On Friday, the Gophers piled onto the hardwood, ready to put up a fight.

In bowling, that is. 

The players organized the trip, posed a friendly bet -- all losers had to do 500 pushups at the bowling lane, in front of everyone -- and strapped on something other than high tops, taking another chance to foster the team camaraderie they say is pulsing stronger than ever these days. 

The term "connectedness" is one that's been buzzing on the tongues of players and coach Richard Pitino recently, replacing all that talk of youthful mistakes.

And of course, it's easy to feel that way after a couple wins. Heading into a game at Illinois on Sunday, the Gophers have won consecutive games against No. 6 Maryland and Rutgers. They're feeling good.

But the players also say that the tighter knit is exactly what helped the team get over that massive hump that was a historic 14-game losing streak.

"It's just about building a bond with each other," freshman Dupree McBrayer said on Saturday.

And hanging out. The team has staged NBA 2K competitions all year, but in the last few weeks, the Gophers have made an effort to get outside the dorms more. They've gone to eat together. They've gone to the movies. And now bowling.

"We're trying to do it by ourselves," McBrayer said. "That way the coaches don't have anything to say about it and we're staying out of trouble."

Well, except for all the smack talk and public humiliation of Jordan Murphy, Stephon Sharp, Gaston Diedhiou and Bakary Konate when they came up on the losing end.

"Right in front of all those people," McBrayer said of the pushups with a grin. "We're competitive with everything we do -- not just basketball."

It appears to be showing up on the court, where the Gophers are trending upward in rebounding, shooting, free throw shooting and sharing the ball in the last four or five games.

Minnesota has shot 34.8 percent and 40.9 percent from three-point range in the team's last two. The Gophers have converted 73 percent or better from the free-throw line in four of the last five. In the last five games, Minnesota has out-rebounded opponents 190 to 172 after losing every rebound battle but one in the first 10 games of conference play. The Gophers have assisted 60 percent of their total shots in each of the last two.

Pitino recently pulled Jordan Murphy into his office.

"Why do you believe we're playing better?" he asked the freshman.
 
"His answer was 'I think we're on the same page for the first time in several weeks,'" Pitino said.
"You can sense that. They're louder in huddles. They're louder in practice. They seem more connected. That's the word I would use."

Pitino also said on Saturday that the Gophers look "a lot different" from the team that took the court at the start of the league slate. Even after reviewing the film from Jan. 23 overtime loss against Illinois, the coach saw big change.

More confident, more calm and yes, more connected.

"We look way better," Pitino said. "Just from an understanding of what we're trying to do, we look better. Guys understanding what they're good at ...we're playing with a much better purpose now than we were at the beginning of the season."

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