SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – No South Dakota squads showed up to batter Minnesota one last time, but the Gophers, forced to travel to the Mount Rushmore state to play Oklahoma State on Saturday, struggled again in the host state of their past two aggressors.
Minnesota trailed by two points with a little more than a minute left on the clock, flirting with the chance to complete a second-half comeback after freshman Jordan Murphy tipped in an offensive rebound.
But the Gophers, lackluster offensively all night, couldn’t string together enough plays to make good on the effort. Forced to foul down the stretch, Minnesota could only watch as a hobbled Cowboys team sank four of six free throws in the final minute — snatching a 62-60 victory and handing the Gophers their third consecutive loss.
Minnesota has lost three of the four games it has played away from Williams Arena this season.
As the Gophers fell to 5-5, though, coach Richard Pitino chose to emphasize what he felt was tangible growth on a team that boasts seven freshmen and sophomores.
“We’re going to be a good team,” the mostly upbeat coach said in the postgame news conference. “I don’t know when that’s going to be, hopefully sooner rather than later, but we’re going to be a good team if we compete the way we did tonight.”
Oklahoma State (6-3), which was missing leading scorer Phil Forte (elbow) and had several other players banged up, launched a 12-2 run that included a pair of three-pointers from reserve wing Joe Burton to pull ahead 44-37 with a little more than 12 minutes left in the second half.
Sophomore guard Nate Mason pulled Minnesota back within 52-49 with a jump shot that ended a nine-minute stretch in which the Gophers went to the line 12 times but didn’t make a basket. Then, Carlos Morris hit a free throw and a long jumper to keep a largely maroon-and-gold crowd whooping.
Too little too late. Mason had a pair of layups down the stretch, but the Gophers never got over the hump.
“In the second half, they threw a punch,” Murphy said. “I think we did a good job of taking that punch and a good job of coming back from that punch. They just made one more play than we did.”
Mason scored a team-high 14 points, but the other four starters — which included freshman Dupree McBrayer for the second time this season — combined to go only 7-for-28 from the field and the Gophers shot just 34.5 percent for the game. Only one Oklahoma State player scored more than 10 (Jeffrey Carroll had 12), but seven had six or more.
At the start, Minnesota appeared ready to turn the page and move past a pair of ugly home losses to South Dakota and South Dakota State, using a mostly competent defense to reel off an 11-1 run and take a nine-point lead in the first half.
Murphy, after an off-game vs. South Dakota State on Tuesday, came alive early, hitting his third career three-pointer and gravitating to the basket for rebounds and scores at the rim. But the rest of Minnesota’s offense, abysmal once again, weighed down any perceived progress.
The Gophers insist there isn’t any frustration.
“Last year we kind of separated a little bit,” after dropping their first five Big Ten games, Mason said. “This year, I feel like every loss we’re getting closer and just working on our weaknesses. I feel like we’re going to be a better team.”