Madison, Wis. – Before Wisconsin sank four free throws in the final 35 seconds, before Minnesota’s last-ditch effort fell short, before they walked off the Kohl Center court losers of three in a row and facing an upward climb for any postseason berth, the Badgers’ student section began chanting “N-I-T, N-I-T” at the Gophers.
They should be so lucky.
After battling the Big Ten-leading Badgers close in the first half, the Gophers turned the ball over three times in three possessions to start the second. Andre Hollins tripped and fell down. Nate Mason fumbled the ball. Charles Buggs threw another out of bounds.
The Gophers, playing without expectations, never really threatened again, falling 63-53 in their fifth consecutive loss in Madison. With opportunities expiring, the Gophers (16-12, 5-10 Big Ten) are looking less and less likely to receive even an NIT invitation.
It’s getting harder not to look ahead to next season, especially as the future is reflected in a youthful movement on the court.
“We’re going to keep trying to finish off the year,” said Mason, the freshman guard who started because coach Richard Pitino said he didn’t like senior DeAndre Mathieu’s attitude. “And just continue to get better for next year.”
Senior Hollins — who had averaged 20 points in three previous games at the Kohl Center, went 1-for-8 from the floor for only two points. Hollins has shot only 26.3 percent over the past two games after going on an eight-game tear that had him averaging more than 21 points in that span.
Still, the visitors had chances Saturday, more than many expected after coming off a pair of brutal losses at Indiana and to Northwestern in which the Gophers gave up 33 three-pointers.
After scoring 12 points early in the game, Badgers All-America center Frank Kaminsky went nearly 18 minutes without a basket. The Gophers, down double digits for much of the second half, cut their deficit to nine on Bakary Konate’s layup with 3:15 left.
But then the raw freshman — given the tough defensive assignment of Wisconsin’s best player — promptly gave up back-to-back layups to Kaminsky, and the Badgers closed it out on free throws. Kaminsky finished with 21 points and five rebounds in his second-to-last college home game.
“I think [freshmen] Gaston [Diedhiou], Bakary, they’re both fitting into their roles well,” said senior Mo Walker, who finished with eight points and nine rebounds. “Just little mistakes defensively, but we all make them. They’ll get better as time goes on.”
Despite such raw, youthful lineups on the floor, the Gophers stayed close with their rivals in the first half, with the Badgers (25-2, 13-1) up at the break after Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser hit the 1,000-point career mark to make it 35-27.
Mason, in his fourth career start, picked up where he left off after his nice performance Wednesday. The freshman had 11 points and five assists, and he scored the Gophers’ first basket of the game and paced a good offensive effort for his team, even though at times Pitino’s lineups looked like a practice for next season rather than one taking on the runaway conference leader on its home floor.
After starting forward Joey King picked up two fouls within the first seven minutes, Pitino put in Diedhiou and played him along with Konate in the frontcourt for stretches.
“I’m not playing young guys because I don’t want to win,” Pitino said. “I’m playing young guys because of foul trouble.”