LAHAINA, HAWAII – It was all Gophers center Elliott Eliason could do to not drop his head and yell.
With 9 minutes, 28 seconds remaining in a game against Arkansas that had quickly gotten out of control Tuesday, the Gophers were being outdone at their own game, their energy hanging by a thread as the Razorbacks wore them down with their press and flustered their defense with their drives.
With Eliason and the rest of the frontcourt — which was supposed to be bolstered after the return of center Mo Walker — seemingly unable to do anything but watch, reserve center Moses Kingsley went up for the slam, Arkansas’ seventh of the day, and Eliason gritted his teeth as the ball went through the net.
The damage never stopped, and Arkansas went on to win 87-73 in the losers bracket of the Maui Invitational. Kingsley’s dunk stretched the Razorbacks’ run to 20-6, turning their advantage from 45-44 to 65-50, and the Gophers — now 0-2 in the tournament and 5-2 this season — had nothing left in the tank.
The Gophers will play host Chaminade, an NCAA Division II program, at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“Plain and simple, they just out-toughed us today,” Gophers guard Andre Hollins said. “We fought well in the first half, and we came out in the second half and they punched us first. We tried to beat them to it, but we didn’t play as hard as we should have.”
One game after battling with No. 8 Syracuse’s bigs shorthanded, the Gophers had the 6-10 Walker back in the fold after he’d served a six-game suspension for violating university policy, but they didn’t have any of the defensive sharpness or grit in the paint they had showed a day earlier.
Alandise Harris led the Razorbacks, who had eight three-pointers and shot 54.5 percent from the field, with 15 points and six rebounds. Five Arkansas players scored in double-figures.
Meanwhile, Gophers forwards Oto Osenieks and Joey King combined for only 10 points and three rebounds, and Walker had one point and one rebound in 11 minutes.
“You can’t think you’re going to come in and be fresh [after missing six games],” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “This time of year, you’re preparing so much, so [Walker is] not really on the preparation side of it.”
With Minnesota reeling from 16 turnovers against the Arkansas press, the Hogs elevated the damage by playing aggressively. Arkansas sliced through Minnesota’s 2-3 zone like a knife through butter left sitting out on a Maui beach, shaking up the Gophers with dunk after dunk.
“We had a lot of careless turnovers,” said guard Austin Hollins, who led the Gophers with 17 points. “It’s not something that we’re not used to — it’s something we do every day because we’re a pressing team as well. … I think a lot of it was just not being smart with the ball.”
At the break the Gophers led by just five, 40-35, despite shooting 65.2 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from three-point range. Malik Smith had 13 points by halftime but finished with only 15, and Minnesota’s advantages slipped away at the start of the second half when Arkansas went on a 10-0 run in the first 3½ minutes to go up 45-40.
It wasn’t long before the Gophers’ body language said it all.
“Arkansas beat us at our own game,” Pitino said. “They were tougher. They were scrappier. … Just our intensity, I thought we just backed down from them.”