LINCOLN, NEB. – On the outside looking in, it might seem as if Minnesota and Nebraska are in a similar situation — both on the bubble and fighting for their NCAA tournament lives.
The Gophers weren’t as desperate as their counterpart coming into Wednesday night’s game, but they will be now after a gut-wrenching 62-61 loss — one that Richard Pitino said “stings the most of any games I’ve been a part of” in his seven-year head coaching career.
A seven-game losing streak for the Cornhuskers came to an end when guard James Palmer Jr. hit two free throws with 1.1 seconds left, but the officials’ foul call to put him at the line was a controversial one.
Gophers junior guard Amir Coffey, who guarded Palmer closely off the inbounds pass, appeared to have his arms straight up as Palmer shot — and, if anything, was leaning away to avoid contact.
“Really, really, really disappointed,” said a furious Pitino after the game. “Really disappointed with the way that game ended. I can’t say it any clearer. But with that, my guys showed heart. My guys fought. And it’s unfortunate the way that ended. Absolutely unfortunate the way that ended.”
Pitino said he didn’t bother to get any clarification on the foul call. There was also no explanation from officials about why a prior play — when they ruled Gophers guard Dupree McBrayer had stepped out of bounds on a rebound — wasn’t reviewed.
“We deserved to win the game,” Pitino said. “You put yourself in position to win the game and you didn’t. Move on. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you. Get ready for Indiana.”
The Gophers (16-9, 6-8 Big Ten) lost their fourth consecutive game and fell to 1-7 in road games this season, including five in a row away from home.
Jordan Murphy, who had a team-high 19 points and 13 rebounds, powered in a layup on the baseline with 59 seconds left to give his team a 61-59 lead.
Palmer, who finished with 24 points, had a chance to tie the score, but he hit just one of two free throws to trail by a point. The senior soon got a chance to redeem himself.
Murphy scored eight of his team’s last 10 points, but he was called for a charging foul with 18 seconds to play.
After a timeout, the Gophers thought they came up with the game-winning defensive play when Daniel Oturu blocked Thomas Allen’s shot, but McBrayer’s foot was ruled out of bounds after he grabbed the loose ball.
Glynn Watson Jr., who added 19 points for Nebraska, inbounded the ball to Palmer near the baseline with 2.7 seconds left and Coffey in pursuit.
“I pump-faked maybe once or twice and he bit a little bit and I jumped into him,” Palmer said.
The last time the Gophers won on the road was 59-52 at Wisconsin on Jan. 3. The opportunity was in front of Pitino’s team with three consecutive road games against opponents at the bottom of the Big Ten. Nebraska, Rutgers (Feb. 24) and Northwestern (Feb. 28) had a combined league record of 10-28 entering Wednesday.
The Cornhuskers (14-11, 4-10) looked overmatched in the outset when Oturu scored eight of his 16 points in a row in the first five minutes. Matz Stockman’s dunk gave the Gophers their biggest lead at 19-8 midway through the first half, but it was back and forth all the way until the crucial call in the end.
“I saw it wasn’t a foul,” Murphy said. “It stings. It definitely stings to have the game taken away from you like that.”