The Gophers men's basketball team hasn't been the same since starting center Liam Robbins sprained his ankle earlier this month.
Before his injury, the Gophers had beaten top Big Ten teams such as Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa.
But since the talented 7-footer has been hobbled, they dropped their fourth consecutive game Thursday night in a 67-59 loss to Northwestern at Williams Arena.
Resting Robbins to hopefully play in Saturday's road game at Nebraska was the plan, but the Gophers (13-11, 6-11 in the Big Ten) suffered a damaging blow to their NCAA tournament hopes without him.
Of all the losses this season, this hurts Minnesota's résumé the most, with the Wildcats ending a 13-game losing streak.
"I'm not going to use injuries as an excuse," Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. "Nobody wants to hear a coach talk about injuries. It's a part of it."
Northwestern (7-14, 4-13) looked loose and confident down the stretch, playing for nothing more than to get its first victory since December 26 against Ohio State during a 3-0 Big Ten start.
The Gophers got out to an outstanding start, taking a 17-3 lead behind seven points from freshman Jamal Mashburn Jr., who was starting his third game in place of injured guard Gabe Kalscheur (broken finger).
Pitino started Eric Curry in place of Robbins at center. But the Gophers established a low-post presence scoring early with fellow senior forward Brandon Johnson, who had eight of his 10 points in the first half.
Even after blowing a 14-point lead, Pitino was encouraged about maintaining a 31-25 halftime advantage. It wasn't until the second half that the momentum completely shifted.
After committing 12 turnovers in the first half, the Wildcats cleaned things up with a 12-0 run to take a 37-31 lead to open the second half. Their zone defense continued to dare the Gophers to rely on outside shooting, which has been a struggle the entire season.
The worst three-point shooting team in the Big Ten went 4-for-27 from beyond the arc, including 3-for-15 in the second half.
Minnesota's deficit grew to seven points before it used a 9-0 run to take a 44-42 lead on Marcus Carr's three-point play with 9 minutes, 13 seconds left.
Carr's three-pointer later put the Gophers on top 49-48 with just under five minutes to play, but that would be their last lead. Miller Kopp's consecutive jumpers answered for the Wildcats, who outscored their opponent 42-28 in the second half.
Carr led the Gophers with 21 points and seven assists, but he was 5-for-17, including 3-for-11 from three. Mashburn finished with 13 points.
Northwestern was led by Boo Buie's 25 points, including 19 points in the second half and 12 made free throws. Kopp finished with 15.
Robbins was averaging 13 points, seven rebounds and leading the Big Ten with nearly three blocks before he suffered a left ankle injury in the second half Feb. 11 vs. Purdue at home. That was the last victory for the Gophers, who were on the wrong side of the bubble in several NCAA tournament projections even before Thursday's stinging defeat.
Not only do the Gophers need to get Robbins healthy, but they're also likely playing without Kalscheur for the rest of the regular season. Carr and reserve guard Both Gach are also battling foot injuries.
"It's disappointing," Johnson said. "Because we were executing perfectly fine at the beginning of the game. We got complacent shooting outside shots. They weren't falling, obviously. We just can't lose faith. We have three more games."