WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. – The Gophers men’s basketball team might well be better than it was a season ago, but they will have to wait at least a few more days to send that message to the rest of the Big Ten Conference.
The Gophers led Purdue by as many as 13 points at Mackey Arena on Wednesday afternoon and still held a 10-point advantage with 8 minutes, 48 seconds left, but they crumbled down the stretch and dropped their league opener 72-68 in heartbreaking and familiar fashion.
Minnesota blew five double-digit leads in conference play last year and has managed to repeat that feat in three more games already this season. The Gophers (11-3 overall, 0-1 Big Ten), who won only two conference games on the road last season, will start the new year with another chance to reverse the trend, getting No. 12 Maryland in College Park on Saturday.
“We thought with five seniors coming back, we’d be used to this and know how to control it,” point guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “But it’s just life on the road in the Big Ten. You’ve got to bring it every day, and we didn’t bring it the last five [minutes].”
The collapse happened quickly. After a stagnant first half, Purdue’s offense came alive in the second half and challenged Minnesota to maintain the dominance it brought for the first 35 minutes.
In a game marked by big runs, the Boilermakers (9-5, 1-0) had the final word in ending the Gophers’ eight-game winning streak.
Minnesota pulled within one point at 66-65 on a layup from center Mo Walker with one minute to play, but Purdue center A.J. Hammons converted a layup on the Boilermakers’ next possession and guard Andre Hollins’ three-point attempt to tie the score bounced off the rim with 21 seconds left. Mathieu’s foul two seconds later allowed guard Rapheal Davis (18 points, 10-for-10 on free throws) to make two foul shots and the Boilermakers sealed their first victory after three consecutive losses.
Only a few minutes earlier, the Gophers seemed in control.
Minnesota charged to double-digit leads twice after Purdue came within three and then six on separate runs, only to watch its lead quickly dwindle again.
Sophomore guard Kendall Stephens (19 points, four assists) got the home crowd roaring with back-to-back three-pointers to even the score at 56 with about six minutes remaining, then reserve forward Vince Edwards knocked down a pair of free throws just over a minute later to give the Boilermakers their first lead since early in the first half at 60-58 with 4:53 to play.
“I thought that when Stephens hit those threes, that really got the building alive,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “That was the first time really where that building kind of took over a little bit.”
Despite centers Walker, Elliott Eliason and Bakary Konate each picking up a pair of fouls in the first half, the Gophers rode an early 9-0 run and a rare advantage on the boards to a 36-25 advantage at the break.
But the Boilermakers’ own 9-0 run early in the second half started a surge that never really stopped. After Purdue made 10 turnovers in the first 28 minutes, Minnesota forced only two in the final 12 as Stephens scored 16 of his 19 points after halftime. The Gophers sent Purdue to the line eight times in the final 5:28 — with the Boilermakers making all eight — including Davis’ decisive trip with 19 seconds left.
“That kind of took our momentum away, changed the game,” Walker said of all the whistles. “When they go to the line that many times, it kind of slows the game down, and we don’t want to play slow, we want to play fast.”