SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. – The Gophers basketball team losing momentum against UNLV in the SoCal Challenge championship game Wednesday could be summed up in one sequence in the first half.
Getting beat to loose balls turned into several of UNLV's seven first-half three-pointers. Three of the 11 Gophers turnovers before halftime also happened during a four-minute stretch that fueled an 11-0 run.
In the blink of an eye, Ben Johnson's team went from a slim advantage to being run off the court by the Runnin' Rebels en route to a 71-62 loss in front of a Minnesota-heavy crowd at J. Serra High School gym.
"They're a top-10 defense for a reason and obviously showed it tonight," Johnson said. "I don't think there was quit, so I'm proud of that. But I think we showed our inexperience and our youth today with just some turnovers and repeated plays that we haven't made."
The Gophers (4-2), who trailed by 22 points at one point Wednesday, squandered a big lead before escaping against Cal Baptist 62-61 on Monday after a last-second shot by Dawson Garcia in overtime, but they were on the opposite end of a mostly one-sided affair against UNLV.
Jamison Battle, who missed the first four games of the season after foot surgery, led the team with nine of his 17 points in the first half, but his spark wasn't enough to match UNLV's energy and constant pressure to force 17 turnovers.
"We faced pressure like that between DePaul and St. Francis [Brooklyn]," Battle said. "The coaches prepared us the best they could. But in the end it's about the players going out there executing. We had a hard time executing, but we're always willing to work and always willing to get better."
Battle converted a three-point play on a fouled putback and free throw to give the Gophers a 20-19 lead with 7:47 left in the first half. That was the last the Gophers faithful in attendance were heard from.
The Rebels (6-0), who defeated No. 21 Dayton earlier this season, were led by Keshon Gilbert with 12 of his 17 points in the first half. Gilbert's backcourt teammates dominated their Big Ten counterparts on both ends of the floor.
After combining for 48 points in Monday's win against Southern Illinois, Gilbert, E.J. Harkless and Luis Rodriguez had 48 points again Wednesday. Harkless and Jackie Johnson III capped a 19-2 run in the first half after nailing back-to-back threes to lead 38-22.
The second half started with Battle and Garcia combining for five points to pull within 38-29 in the first few minutes, but the tempo was too fast for the Gophers' frontcourt to be a major factor. Garcia finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and five turnovers.
On Monday, freshman big man Pharrel Payne led the Gophers with 15 points and 13 rebounds vs. Cal Baptist, but he rarely saw the ball (2 points on 1-for-2 shooting) in the post against UNLV. The Gophers often settled for jumpers but couldn't shoot their way back into the game.
The U's starting backcourt of Ta'Lon Cooper and Jaden Henley (nine turnovers combined) struggled to defend and find an offensive rhythm against the quicker and more athletic Rebel guards. But Cooper, who transferred from Morehead State, was the only guard to see meaningful minutes Wednesday that played in college before this season. Freshman Braeden Carrington had 15 points off the bench, but the inexperience of the Gophers guards showed.
The Gophers also had issues resurface that were plaguing them coming into the SoCal Challenge. They had trouble at the foul line going 11-for-19, including 4-for-11 when the game was closer in the first half.
In the 16-point loss against DePaul on Nov. 14, the Gophers gave up 20 offensive rebounds. The Rebels scored 18 second-chance points on 14 offensive boards.
Henley, a Ontario, Calif., native, nailed a three-pointer with under 30 seconds left to cut a 22-point deficit to 71-62, but the Gophers' comeback was too late in Wednesday's title game.
Picked to finish sixth in the Mountain West, the Rebels have a chance to get top-25 looks in the next national polls after Thanksgiving with their impressive performance in the SoCal Challenge.
The Gophers, who don't play until at Virginia Tech on Nov. 28, have their toughest stretch of the early schedule facing the first of four consecutive major conference foes, including at Purdue on Dec. 4 to open Big Ten play.