EVANSTON, ILL. - After two consecutive losses and a drop in the polls, Wednesday night's game against Northwestern was important to the Gophers men's basketball team. They needed to win, and they needed to do it resoundingly.
Instead, the Gophers fell apart once more, losing their third game in a row -- this time to the Big Ten also-ran Wildcats -- in ugly fashion, falling 55-48 by shooting 33.3 percent from the floor and collapsing down the stretch.
Seemingly mystified by the Wildcats' 1-3-1 zone, the Gophers managed only 21 second-half points. They forced perimeter shots and turned the ball over a total of 15 times -- Minnesota leads the Big Ten in that dubious category, averaging 14.7 per game -- prompting coach Tubby Smith to ride his players hard once more in the postgame news conference.
Sophomore point guard Andre Hollins had perhaps his worst game ever in maroon and gold, going 2-for-9 from the field and collecting seven turnovers. Without his usual inspired play, the Gophers looked lost.
"We really didn't show tonight," Hollins said after the team's fifth consecutive loss at Welsh-Ryan Arena. "There's been two second halves [in a row now] where we've been terrible, really terrible. And it's as simple as that."
After taking a 27-19 lead with 4 minutes, 50 seconds left in the first half, the No. 12 Gophers (15-4, 3-3 Big Ten) relinquished every bit of it in the second, enabling Northwestern (12-8, 3-4) to go on a 10-3 run that culminated with a three-point play from Reggie Hearn.
Even worse for the Gophers was that the foul was on junior guard Austin Hollins -- his second in 15 seconds, and he fouled out with 11:47 to play.
After Hollins' fourth foul, Smith had his replacement at the scorer's table ready to check in. But before he got the opportunity, Hollins promptly picked up No. 5.
"I don't know what he was doing," Smith said. "He knew he had four fouls. I don't know why he'd even go near the guy."
Said Hollins, "It was just a bad decision."
The strong play of senior forward Trevor Mbakwe (14 points, 16 rebounds) provided the Gophers with a 27-24 halftime lead, but their sluggish play late in the first half carried into the second. With Austin Hollins gone and Andre Hollins looking "scared," according to Smith, the team started to force shots and panic. They also didn't help themselves at the foul line, making only 7 of 17 attempts.
"I think [Northwestern] just focused on taking away the inside from me and Rodney [Williams] and forced us to take a lot of outside shots," Mbakwe said. "And tonight they weren't falling like they were the last time we played them.
"I think it's just the way Northwestern plays, the whole back door, they take the air out of the ball. It's kind of like Wisconsin, where a five-point lead feels like a 15-point lead ... and there's only so many times where you can dig yourself a hole and come back."
That's not good for the Gophers, because Wisconsin is exactly where they're headed Saturday. But right now, it seems, the team has a long ways to go to regain their earlier respectability.
In the waning minutes of the Northwestern game, that stress showed, with the players appearing to bicker between plays.
"When you're losing, people point the finger. That's the way it starts," Smith said. "Instead of being 'It's my fault,' other things you have to deal with, you look at the refs, you look at the coach, it's 'somebody's not doing something.' And that's what losers do."