In the biggest game of their season, with a chance to take a major step toward securing an NCAA tournament bid, the Gophers men’s basketball team collapsed.

They couldn’t make key free throws. They had trouble inbounding the ball. They couldn’t score down the stretch.

They might have ruined a season that continued to be promising, right up until there were two seconds remaining in regulation late Wednesday night at Williams Arena.

Maryland guard Darryl Morsell sank a three-pointer with 1.9 seconds remaining and ninth-ranked Maryland came back from a 16-point halftime deficit to beat the Gophers 74-73 inside a less-than-full Barn.

Did Gophers coach Richard Pitino think he needed to beat Maryland to make the tourney?

“I did,’’ he said, with a rueful smile. “We’re kind of running out of time here.’’

The Gophers could still make the tournament. They could win their last three Big Ten games to reach .500 for the conference season. They could win a game or two in the conference tournament.

But their past three home losses threaten to define their season. They blew a big lead against Iowa, lost a close game to Indiana and blew a big lead against Maryland.

Win those three and the Gophers would be debating just how high a seed they would deserve. Instead, Pitino found himself being asked, nearing 11 p.m. on Feb. 26, whether he thinks about his job security.

Pitino handled the question better than most would have, given the circumstances.

“I think that you try constantly, when you’re in this profession, you think about your team, you think about your family, you know, you try to stay confident any time you lose close games,’’ he said. “You’ve got to evaluate every single game, you know, but I’m very confident in what we’re doing here. Our guys are really good kids and are getting better.’’

VideoVideo (03:43): Gophers coach Richard Pitino talks about criticism on him and the tough loss Wednesday against Maryland.

Pitino had cooled considerably since the end of the game, when he screamed at officials as they walked off the court, arguing that his star center, Daniel Oturu, had been fouled on a last-second shot following a desperation downcourt pass.

Gophers forward Jarvis Omersa turned Pitino away from the officials, then Oturu flopped to the court near the baseline. Omersa and guard Marcus Carr lifted him to his feet and guided him to the postgame handshake line.

Oturu was stunned. That was the proper reaction.

Until the final minutes, this game featured Oturu and Carr turning in tour de force performances.

Oturu hassled Maryland’s talented front line without getting into foul trouble and stroked jumpers from the baseline and the three-point line. He finished with 28 pounds and 11 rebounds.

Carr logged his usual half-hour-plus minutes, spending much of his court time with the ball in his hands, and setting the program’s single-season assist record. He finished with 19 points and seven assists.

Freshman Isaiah Ihnen became the Gophers’ “and one’’ player of the night, hitting three three-pointers early in the first half to build a lead that seemed, for most of the game, insurmountable.

The worst aspect of this collapse is that it might limit the number of times we get to see Carr and Oturu playing together.

Oturu has established himself as one of the best players in the country. I’d rather see him stay in college and add some muscle to that useful frame, but it’s his prerogative to leave when leaving best suits him.

Carr is a redshirt sophomore and already a record-holder in his first season with the program. Give him a little ballhandling help and rest next season, and he could be even more dynamic.

The two have elevated the Gophers program, replacing Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy as the team’s primary ballhandler and rebounder, both achieving more than could have reasonably been expected.

Because of Wednesday’s collapse, this fine duo might not enjoy the privilege of playing in the NCAA tournament together.

That would be as sad as the Gophers’ performance in the last five minutes Wednesday night.

 

Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com