The Gophers couldn't afford another loss if they were to stay on a pace to make the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
So, after three consecutive losses, the timing couldn't have been any better to play Nebraska, winless in the Big Ten and undermanned coming off a recent COVID-19 pause.
Gophers leading scorers Marcus Carr and Liam Robbins in foul trouble meant no smooth sailing offensively — it led to a drought of more than seven minutes without a basket in the second half.
Still, the Gophers pulled away for a 79-61 bounce back victory against the struggling Cornhuskers at Williams Arena. Nebraska (4-10, 0-8) lost its 24th straight Big Ten game. They were playing only their second game back after several players and coach Fred Hoiberg tested positive for the coronavirus. They were also without their leading scorer, Teddy Allen, who was out for disciplinary reasons, and have five games in an eight-day stretch.
"I wanted to come in today and not take this one lightly," said Carr, whose 21 points led four players in double figures despite playing a Gophers career-low 19 minutes. "Just wanted to get back on track. Erase these past three games and play like we know we can play."
The junior point guard was determined to make up for missing two shots in crunch time in a 76-72 loss last week at Rutgers. That was the U's fifth loss in six games.
The Gophers (12-7, 5-7 Big Ten) had lost three consecutive games to unranked opponents, including vs. Maryland at home. But they're now 12-1 at the Barn.
"You have to find a way to win on your home court in this league," Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. "We were pretty good to deal with that much foul trouble. Anytime you get an 18-point win in this league you take it."
But there really is no such thing as an easy win in arguably the toughest conference in college basketball.
Gabe Kalscheur's three-pointer just under 18 minutes left in the second half made it 51-32 Gophers, but they then went 7 minutes and 33 seconds without a basket.
That abysmal offensive stretch for Minnesota included 18 consecutive missed shots. Nebraska's zone defense forced a plethora of contested jumpers. The Gophers, who rank last in the Big Ten in field-goal and three-point percentage, looked the part, going 38% from the field, in-cluding 8-for-36 from beyond the arc.
It was tough to score when Robbins, who was coming off a 16-point, 10-rebound game at Rutgers, went to the sideline with his fourth foul with 17:21 left in the second half.
Carr, who had five assists in the first five minutes Monday, picked up his fourth foul at 15:39.
The Huskers saw a great opportunity to chip into their big deficit with the two best players in the game both on the bench. Lat Mayen's back-to-back threes sparked a 13-1 run that pulled Nebraska within 52-45.
Tre' Williams finally ended the U's lengthy scoring drought with a three that extended the advantage to 10 points with 10:21 to play.
Carr's 13 points in the second half was critical to hold Nebraska off, but the Gophers needed contributions from others. Getting extended playing time was freshman Jamal Mashburn Jr., who scored 11 points in a career-high 29 minutes.
Robbins fouled out with seven points and eight rebounds in 14 minutes. But Brandon Johnson played through a finger injury to post his first double-double this season with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
The Gophers held the Huskers to 37% shooting and won the rebounding battle 46-43. Nebraska had 18 turnovers.
"And they're mostly careless. Effort ones, fine, I'm OK with that if it's an effort turnover," Hoiberg said. "But it's just mindless, mental mistakes that we need to correct."
The Gophers, meanwhile, needed a confidence-boosting win to be ready for a rematch Thursday at home against Purdue, which hammered them by 19 points on Jan. 30.
"There's no team more physical than the team we're about to play," Pitino said. "I thought we took a major step forward."