They kissed the rim. The ugly ones barely scraped it. And a handful of the Gophers' 18 missed free throws rolled around the cylinder like roulette balls before falling to the hardwood.

It's a gamble every time the 15th-ranked Gophers step to the charity stripe, proven by their 26-for-44 mark from the free-throw line in a 71-66 victory over Cornell on Saturday night at Williams Arena.

"Obviously, we have to spend more time shooting free throws," Tubby Smith said after the game, played in front of announced crowd of 12,633.

Those frustrating 15-footers could kill this Gophers team's dreams.

The stat sheet depicted a blowout, not the eventual five-point finish against a Cornell team that has lost five games in a row.

The Gophers (7-1) recorded a 48-33 rebounding margin. Three players -- Trevor Mbakwe (12), Ralph Sampson III (13) and Blake Hoffarber (13) -- finished in double figures. Cornell hit one field goal in the first seven minutes of the second half.

But botched free throws offset all the makings of a romp.

The Gophers led 34-33 at halftime, after they went 8-for-18 on free throws in the first half. Cornell (2-6) stayed in the game by exploiting the Gophers' Big Ten-worst three-point defense (38 percent through seven games). The Big Red hit 14 of their 33 attempts from beyond the arc, 64 percent of their offensive output, though it shot only 37 percent (6-for-16) after halftime.

The Gophers, however, failed to make enough free throws to pull away, even though they improved  to make 69 percent of their attempts (18-for-26) in the second.

Leading 57-55 with 6 minutes, 34 seconds to play, the Gophers missed six of their next 10 shots from the foul line.

Cornell was still within 65-63 with 1:22 to play. But Mbakwe, who tied a Gophers record with 20 free-throw attempts (he was 12-for-20) and also grabbed 16 rebounds, made his last four free throws and helped the team avoid back-to-back home nonconference losses.

Players and coaches seemed baffled by their ongoing problems at the free-throw line -- they were shooting 64 percent entering Saturday's game.

"In practice, we're hitting our free throws," said Hoffarber, who made three of his four free-throw attempts. "When one person, a couple people start missing, it starts getting contagious. Then other people start missing."

From the start of the season, Smith anointed his inside rotation as the key to his entire operation.

They proved him right, as the Gophers entered Saturday's matchup against Cornell as the Big Ten's second-ranked rebounding offense and top shot-blocking team. But Gophers bigs went a combined 18-for-34 from the free-throw line Saturday, with Sampson going 3-for-7 and Colton Iverson 3-for-6.

"We're an inside-oriented team, and we expect to get fouled," Smith said. "Our post players expect to get fouled and now they gotta step up and hit free throws."

The Gophers start the Big Ten season with matchups at Wisconsin, at Michigan State, home against Indiana and at Ohio State, a tough slate for any program.

If the Gophers fail to hit free throws in league play ...

"It'll be bad. It won't be easy," Smith said.