BLOOMINGTON, IND. - Had this game occurred a year ago, Gophers coach Tubby Smith might have been patting players' backs after the game. Indeed, last year's lack of visible frustration -- at least to the media -- said something on its own ... just as Smith's obvious dissatisfaction after an 88-81 loss at Indiana on Saturday said a thing or two about this year's squad.
Now, there are no gold stars for making it close against the No. 5 team in the country. This year's Gophers are good enough to win.
That's why when the No. 8 Gophers (15-2, 3-1 Big Ten) squandered an opportunity to potentially tie the score with 15 seconds left before an announced 17,472 at Assembly Hall, Smith was a little hard on his players afterward -- not just for failing to get the rebound off Jordan Hulls' missed free throw but for their lackluster performance in the first half that put them in that spot.
"We played very passively and they were much more aggressive, and I thought that was the difference," Smith said. "Obviously we had a chance with 15 seconds left and if we get that rebound ... we might make a three the way we were shooting at the end. But we didn't do the things during the course of the game."
Especially in the first half, when they gave up 52 points. The second half was a vastly different story, one about a Gophers team capable of coming back from a 23-point deficit by putting stifling pressure on a strong and balanced squad.
For that, Smith was impressed, noting the Gophers' "heart and toughness." But as with anything, increased success brings increased expectations: If the Gophers were good enough to be in that game at the end, they were good enough to win it.
Still, they got the chance.
Down 52-29 at halftime, the Gophers came back with improved defense -- Indiana (15-1, 3-0) shot only 28.6 percent in the second half after exploding for 65.5 percent in the first -- and with outbursts on offense. They drew back into the game by riding a barrage of three-pointers despite the fact that the Hoosiers were getting plenty of points from the free-throw line, going to the stripe 40 times in all.
When Andre Hollins was fouled on a three-point attempt with 18 seconds left, he made two of three shots to pull the Gophers within 84-81.
That's when Hulls was fouled and missed both free throws, but the Gophers couldn't grab the vital rebound. "That was the game right there," Andre Hollins said.
That the Gophers were able to get to that point shows just how much they have improved from a season ago, when deficits seemed insurmountable. This season, they have tenacity, along with the talent and aggressiveness to fight back. Once the Gophers started playing their game in the second half, they were tough to score on and tough to stop.
"They were very, very physical," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "It was tough to get open."
The only problem, of course, is that it took them so long to get there. The Gophers turned the ball over 12 times in the first half while looking bewildered by the varied defenses Indiana threw at them. Meanwhile, the Hoosiers were making seemingly every shot over a 36-14 run that spanned the final 10:08 of the half and extended their one-point lead to 23.
The second half might have proved that the Gophers belong in the conversation with the elite teams at the top of the Big Ten. At the same time, the Gophers -- who will get a quick chance for redemption Thursday when No. 2 Michigan visits -- will have to win close games against the league's top opponents if they want to challenge for the title.
"We know one game like this isn't going to dictate the rest of the season," Mbakwe said. "Whoever wins the Big Ten championship this year is going to have multiple losses, and unfortunately we had a tough loss on the road. We've just got to come home and take care of business."