In the aftermath of the worst loss of the season, the Gophers locker room echoed.
Many individual cubbies sat undisturbed, and the crowded showers’ pattering drowned out anything else. Charles Buggs’ usual raucous singing was absent; the few players that remained wore the last-second miss on their faces. Mo Walker, having fallen short on the Gophers’ final opportunity, was inconsolable, quietly weeping with his face buried in his jersey — emerging only to shower, then quickly returning to the same position when he was done.
Andre Hollins’ perpetually uplifting smile was perhaps missed as much in that moment as his play had been on the court, with the Gophers’ second consecutive loss, a 55-54 heartbreaker Saturday to a scrappy Northwestern team, hitting like a freight train.
“Certainly it’s good when they care,” coach Richard Pitino said. “We’ve got guys crying in the locker room … so they care about winning. That’s the first step towards building a winning program.”
But the Gophers showed they have a long way to go on Saturday, when a slow start kept them neck-and-neck with the Wildcats, and poor execution down the stretch ultimately dooming them before an announced 12,744 at Williams Arena.
Tre Demps’ three-pointer gave the Wildcats a 55-52 lead with 54 seconds to go. DeAndre Mathieu’s layup pulled the Gophers (15-7, 4-5 Big Ten) within one, and a Demps miss set up their final opportunity with 11 seconds left. Mathieu came up short and Walker missed the follow before the horn sounded.
The result ruined another big stretch by Walker (14 points, four rebounds) in the first half, and a slew of momentous plays from Austin Hollins (13 points, six rebounds) in the second.
Northwestern (12-11, 5-5) — which fed Drew Crawford for a 17-point performance — took down the Gophers one game after stunning No. 14 Wisconsin in Madison.
The Gophers had only eight turnovers and held Northwestern to 43.5 percent shooting from the floor, but the Wildcats ran rampant in a first half that highlighted all of the home team’s defensive weaknesses. Later, the Gophers repeatedly came up empty in a game that was called very lightly with both teams combining for a total of 16 trips to the free-throw line (and only eight after 32 minutes).
Northwestern got out to a 19-9 lead after connecting on five three-pointers in the first eight minutes — this from a Wildcats offense that came into Saturday ranked 316th out of 351 teams nationally.
“We didn’t do a good job in the first half of guarding the three,” Austin Hollins said. “But they were hitting some tough shots.”
With the Gophers stalling against the Wildcats’ stingy man-to-man defense, Walker picked up the momentum, breaking out for 12 first-half points and igniting a 10-0 run, much like he had done in his team’s previous home game, against Wisconsin last week.
A tip-in with 5:27 to go in the half tied the score at 23-23, but Northwestern hung around, Kale Abrahamson hitting the Wildcats’ sixth three-pointer of the half with 19 seconds left to put the Gophers in a 32-29 hole at the break.
Austin Hollins scored nine points and was a big part of the Gophers’ bolstered perimeter defense in the second half, helping to keep the Gophers alive, and igniting the Barn with a dunk to tie the score at 50-50 with 3:54 left.
It was a victory the Gophers badly could have used, with a road game against Purdue ahead, likely their fourth game without Andre Hollins, who severely sprained his left ankle Jan. 22.
“It was a tough loss,” Mathieu said. “You’re right there, you have a chance to win the game in the end, those are the worst losses. We just didn’t play well in the first half. The second half we tried to turn it on and you can’t do that in this conference. Teams are really good, everybody is good. Anybody can be beat any day, and they proved it today.”