After Glenn Robinson III turned his left ankle early in the second half Thursday night, injuries officially had depleted Michigan’s entire typical starting frontcourt.
Still, the Gophers weren’t able to capture a victory over their handicapped foe to lead off the Big Ten basketball schedule.
With Wolverines center Mitch McGary already out awaiting back surgery and power forward Robinson on the bench, Michigan reserve guard Zak Irvin — who had a game-high 15 points on five three-pointers — Nik Stauskas (14 points, seven assists) and backup forward Jon Horford (14 points, nine rebounds) stepped up down the stretch to overwhelm the Gophers 63-60 at Williams Arena.
The Gophers, who had many chances to steal the victory, played the role of the heartbroken. Michigan lost the rebound battle 38-24, but was able to prevail with the Gophers shooting only 39.6 percent from the field and turning over the ball 15 times.
After the game, coach Richard Pitino reminded his players to keep the first conference loss of his tenure at Minnesota in perspective.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Pitino said. “And we’ve got to understand that we’re just building this. They [the Wolverines] have got guys on their team that were in a national championship game last year. We’re at the infancy stages of this.”
That relative youth showed at the end, when Minnesota turned the ball over four times in the final five minutes. With 4.5 seconds to go, Stauskas hit a pair of free throws. DeAndre Mathieu launched a three-point attempt at the buzzer from the top of the key, but couldn’t find the net.
About four minutes into the second half, Robinson landed awkwardly on one ankle after blocking a Mathieu shot and was out for the rest of the game. He became the second major hole in Michigan’s frontcourt.
With the Wolverines clearly missing 6-10 center McGary from the start, the Gophers hopped out to a 15-7 lead and led 30-28 at halftime. In crunch time, however, Minnesota wasted the opportunity.
“Regardless of whether those two guys are in or not, Michigan is a really good team,” Gophers senior guard Austin Hollins said. “They played their hearts out. We played our hearts out. I think both teams left it out on the floor, and they just beat us tonight.”
Senior guard Malik Smith hit a three-pointer with 27 seconds to go to put Minnesota within three at 60-57. On the ensuing possession, the officials originally called a ball out of bounds off Stauskas, but after reviewing the play, gave the ball back to Michigan.
“The game definitely slipped away from us,” Andre Hollins said. “They hit big shots and made big plays, and we turned the ball over.”
Part of the problem was that the Gophers usual standouts all had off nights shooting the ball. Junior guard Andre Hollins — who, along with Smith, led the Gophers with 12 points — went 3-for-10 from the field, although he did have five rebounds.
Austin Hollins went 1-for-9, though he also contributed four assists and four steals. Center Elliott Eliason provided some spark with 10 points and 10 rebounds, but was limited to 24 minutes because of foul trouble.
“It was kind of surprising that we weren’t making shots like we normally do, especially at home,” Mathieu said.
“But we still should have defended better, and we probably would have won the game.”