The Gophers men’s basketball team hoped to head into the holidays and the Big Ten slate with a winning record and a reason for some shred of optimism.
Instead, the Gophers were overwhelmed on their home court once again and sent back to .500 as they await a Wednesday trip to Ohio State for the start of conference play. Wisconsin-Milwaukee asserted its dominance early and held it late, handing the Gophers a 74-65 defeat at Williams Arena, their fourth loss in five December games.
The Gophers fell to 6-6. They ended nonconference play .500 or worse only one other time since 1978, in 2006-07, when they went 6-8 on their way to finishing 9-22 overall. That was the season Dan Monson was fired in November after a 2-5 start.
“When you lose and you’re losing like this at home, it’s hard,” an abrupt and salty Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “I mean, there’s nowhere to hide. You’re frustrated, you get down on yourselves and I think young guys have just got to understand that we’ve got to continue to stay with it and stay positive.”
The Panthers (9-4) controlled all but 22 seconds of Wednesday’s game, drilling five three-pointers in the first half, then zipping inside for easy layups in the second. They outrebounded the Gophers 41-31. Jordan Johnson, a 5-9 guard, had 19 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds, and four other Milwaukee players finished in double digits.
After perking up late in the first half, the Gophers took a 43-41 lead with 15 minutes, 38 seconds left, but the advantage was short-lived. Struggling to contain the Panthers’ versatile roster all night, the Gophers gave up two quick baskets to reverse their luck, and then watched UWM take off for a 20-7 run to put them down 11.
A 10-3 run capped by a layup by Bakary Konate had the Gophers back within five with 47 seconds to go, and after a pair of free throws from Panthers guard JayQuan McCloud, they were back there again after a floater by Dupree McBrayer.
But Carlos Morris missed the front end of a 1-and-1 after the official said he released a good basket fractions of a second after being fouled, and the senior’s jumper on the next possession rimmed out.
“The truth is, we are young,” said Jordan Murphy, 6-7 freshman who had his third consecutive double-double, with 16 points and 10 rebounds. “We accept that as a challenge. But you see guys like Dupree coming in there at the last second, trying to pull us back within striking distance. … I think we have to trust the process like our coaching staff always says. It is a process, it’s a long process. But I think it will be worth it in the end.”
Much of the thin, preholiday crowd slinked out before the end, voicing its displeasure with a squad that has dropped three consecutive “guarantee games” — matchups big schools pay small schools to play. The Gophers also lost to South Dakota and South Dakota State.
“South Dakota State team here was tougher than in the year’s past,” senior Joey King said as players dressed quickly. “Milwaukee is a great team, and South Dakota has had massive improvement over the last two years. There were some tough teams here and we’re just excited to move forward to conference. Obviously I know we have a lot of work to do, but I think these guys are up for the test.”