Read my story on the 75-67 loss to Syracuse here.
In the end, there are plenty of shortcomings to be seen.
The Gophers played sloppy -- very sloppy at times -- and failed to execute down the stretch.
But those breakdowns fade in comparison to all the things Minnesota did right, even if they wound up losing. After all, this was never a game they were expected to make so close.
Despite a banged-up and short-handed frontcourt that found itself dangerously in foul trouble, the Gophers showed a lot of grit inside. Center Elliott Eliason (six points, nine rebounds) provided an incredibly valuable presence in the post, blocking five shots and playing overall very solid interior defense. Joey King (nine points, five rebounds) disregarded a fractured jaw and played with great energy and toughness, once getting fouled hard and falling on his hurt jaw but remaining in the game.
Each player -- whose roles have only grown with the absence of center Mo Walker, who was suspended for the first six games for violating university policy -- was hampered by foul trouble, with the pair both picking up their fourth about midway through the second half. Eliason's value was never more obvious than when the big man was on the bench.
"We tried to drive at the big guy," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "We wanted to get him in foul trouble, and when he was out, we made a ten-point run. He's a big difference-maker when he's not in there. When he came back in, we couldn't get to the basket the couple times we had before."
Walker returns tomorrow, when the Gophers face Arkansas in the loser's bracket at 1 p.m. CT.
"When Mo gets back, that's going to be a big help for us," Pitino said.
A few other notes from today's loss:
- Malik Smith was very clutch for the Gophers today, finishing with a team-high 16 points and connecting on four three-pointers, all of which came at momentous times. Smith hit two in a row down the stretch in the second half to pull Minnesota back within four after the Gophers had fallen behind by 12.
Syracuse big man CJ Fair sustained a sizeable cut under his right eye in a scary play on Monday that was never even ruled a foul. The 6-8 senior went up for a slam over a few Gophers defenders and came down with a bloodied cheek after Austin Hollins appeared to catch him with an elbow. After a trainer examined Fair – who was taken to a local hospital to receive stitches after the game – a bandage was applied to the wound and the forward returned to the game, finishing with 16 points and 10 rebounds.“I cut down a lane and I went up for the dunk and I felt like I hit my face. Then as I can down I seen blood on my hand and from there I knew it was something bad.”
The Gophers were within two with two minutes remaining when Austin Hollins blocked Tyler Ennis' shot at the rim. But the big gift was spoiled when Smith threw the pass way ahead of the team, turning the ball over and giving the Orange possession once more. Syracuse went on an 8-2 run from there.
Minnesota showed it has gotten much better from a year ago at attacking a defensive zone. The Gophers executed well against Syracuse's 2-3 zone, using high-low action to help collapse the defense and hitting a high percentage from three-point range, particularly in the second half, when the Gophers were 6-for-11 from behind the arc. "Coach prepared us for it," Andre Hollins said. "We had some lapses where the game got stagnant and I think we handled that well."