Gophers look lost in loss to Indiana

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 27, 2012 - 6:23 AM

Tubby Smith's team suffered a demoralizing loss at home and is crawling toward the finish line.

There's a feel to a building when the hope is gone.

There's a hollow but tangible sound when the last breath of optimism is exhaled and forgotten as it escapes through the cracks in the rafters.

Incredibly, as the Gophers men's basketball season has fallen apart, the team has continued to see new chances. Through close games and moments of excitement, it at times felt just a few drives away from a shot at the NCAA tournament. Just a leading presence away from success.

But the force needed to propel that surge is still nowhere to be found, with veterans Rodney Williams and Ralph Sampson III all but absent in the Gophers' stunning 69-50 loss to No. 23 Indiana on Sunday.

"Ralph was struggling to score; Rodney, he's not looking to score. So this is what you get," coach Tubby Smith said. "When you're not engaged, then your teammates are not going to be. You've got to earn their respect by playing hard all the time. And when you don't, the opponents are not going to respect you and your teammates are not going to respect you."

Instead of watching a team rise to the occasion, the scattering patrons at Williams Arena -- which occasionally rattled with boos on Sunday -- are simply watching things keep getting worse.

"That's what's going to happen when you don't come ready to play," said a sullen Chip Armelin. "You get beat. ... We were supposed to come out fighting; from the last game, carry our momentum. But we just came out kind of slacking."

The players have said the right words before, lamenting that their backs are against a wall. But if the Gophers (17-12, 5-11 Big Ten) felt any urgency to pull their shoulders off the bricks, they didn't show it.

With the season hanging by a thread, the Gophers were playing a team they already had beaten on the road. But they managed just 50 points -- with only a single player tallying more than six -- turned the ball over 16 times, made half of their free throws and played perhaps their worst basketball of the year.

"We start messing up and stuff like that," Armelin said of the team's mentality after a string of losses. "We start blaming each other or whatever for our mistakes."

After a Michigan State game in which the Gophers were competitive until the final minutes, the apparent lack of focus against Indiana was surprising. The Gophers shot just 29 percent in the first half, a stretch in which Williams went scoreless with a single rebound and Sampson had three points and one board.

Despite holding Indiana freshman star Cody Zeller to five points and two rebounds in the first half, the Gophers -- whose only real fighting chance came from an 11-point effort by Austin Hollins -- trailed 37-26 at the break. And the troubles only mounted in the second half, when Indiana padded the lead to 18 five minutes in, with the Gophers offense looking stagnant and shell-shocked.

Down by 24 with six minutes remaining, the motivation long lost, the Gophers seemed to be waiting for the final buzzer.

With Julian Welch hobbled by a hip pointer, he had less of an impact than usual. But Smith won't allow that as an excuse. Not when his veterans looked lost.

"The guys you have, you have," he said. "So you say, 'OK, Rodney, OK, Ralph, it's sort of your team, you need to step up.' And they tried. And I guess they gave it their best effort."

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