MADISON, WIS. – The Gophers were 20 minutes away from the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament when they led Wisconsin by two points at halftime Sunday.
Looking for the program’s first victory at the Kohl Center since 2009, the Gophers collapsed under the defensive pressure of the No. 22 Badgers in the second half, falling 66-49 — their first loss in nine games.
With their second-largest margin of defeat this season, the Gophers (23-8, 11-7 Big Ten) ended up with the No. 4 seed instead, still good for a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament, which starts Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
The Gophers’ highest previous seed since the first Big Ten tournament in 1998 was No. 5 in 2005. Not bad for a team that was picked to finish 13th in the league.
“I’m sure they’re down right now,” coach Richard Pitino said of his players. “It’s my job to get them excited again, because as much as I’m disappointed the way we played in the second half, we’re one of the best stories in the country, in my opinion.”
Amir Coffey’s three-pointer with 6 minutes, 18 seconds to go cut a 13-point deficit to 51-45. But Wisconsin extended it back to a 13-point margin after a 7-0 run that was capped by Bronson Koenig’s fourth three-pointer.
The Badgers (23-8, 12-6), who won their seventh consecutive meeting in the Border Battle series, shot 8-for-10 from beyond the arc in the second half to claim that No. 2 seed in the Big Ten. Koenig scored all of his 17 points after intermission, shooting 5-for-7 from long distance in the second half.
“We weren’t playing as confident as we usually play,” said Nate Mason, who led the Gophers with 17 points on 8-for-20 shooting. “We kind of let the refs get to us. It played a factor in everything we did. We didn’t move the ball as well, and we didn’t get good looks.”
Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter played their final home game Sunday. The four have been part of two Final Four teams and made the Sweet 16 last year.
Still, this seemed like the best opportunity in years for the Gophers to end their drought against their rival. They were one of the hottest teams in the nation, with as many victories during their eight-game winning streak as they had all of last season. Wisconsin had lost five of six, blowing a chance at the conference title.
With center Reggie Lynch (eight rebounds, five blocks) doing his part to slow Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, the Gophers led for most of the first half, but they couldn’t pull away. Their lead was only 29-27 at halftime.
Early in the second half, Jordan Murphy picked up his third foul. Koenig was in foul trouble early, but he hit back-to-back three-pointers to spark a 13-4 Badgers run.
Wisconsin shot 25 percent in its previous 10 games from three-point range coming in, but it went 5-for-6 from beyond the arc to open the second half.
D’Mitrik Trice’s four-point play drew the fourth foul on Murphy at 12:24. Brown’s wide-open dunk then capped an 18-2 run to make it 48-35.
Pitino ran onto the court and screamed after calling a timeout, clearly frustrated over his players’ lazy defense. Their offense wasn’t much better.
Murphy, who had averaged 17 points and nearly 14 rebounds in his previous seven games, had only six points and five rebounds in 14 minutes. Akeem Springs went scoreless on 0-for-6 shooting.
For the first time in more than a month, the Gophers looked rattled and had no answers. Their last loss was Jan. 28, 85-78 at home to Maryland.
Absent were the offensive balance, unselfishness and teamwork that led to the program’s longest Big Ten winning streak in 20 years. The Gophers have until Friday to gain their confidence back to see if they can make a run in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
“Obviously we’re disappointed the way we played,” said Coffey, who scored 13 points. “But when you look at the bright side, we won the last eight out of nine.”