LINCOLN, NEB. – With 18 seconds left, the Gophers men’s basketball team was right there again.
Down by three. Game on the line. A shot to flip the statistic that has so far defined the Gophers in the Big Ten schedule and land on the other side.
Not this time.
Given three last-minute chances after a performance wrought with mistakes, the Gophers flubbed them all, falling to Nebraska 52-49 at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Tuesday night — their fifth conference loss by five points or fewer.
Andre Hollins got a look for a three-pointer.
Minnesota rebounded and worked the ball to Carlos Morris near the top of the key.
Another board, and DeAndre Mathieu was wide open in the corner.
And again the clock expired on the Gophers (12-8, 1-6 Big Ten) and their hopes to turn around a rockier and more fickle start than anyone could have imagined.
“I’ve never seen a team so close,” said junior forward Joey King, shaking his head. “This is tough to be in the situation we’re in, but we know with the character in our locker room that we’ll be able to push through it.”
In an ugly game featuring 31 turnovers, 43 fouls and extended stretches without a field goal for both teams, the Gophers played only a little bit worse than their opponent.
They missed eight of their final 13 free throws — two of the misses were on the front end of one-and-ones — to handicap itself against an opponent that looked disinterested in winning.
Still, the Gophers had chances. Nebraska (11-7, 3-3) didn’t make a basket for the final eight minutes of the game. After Hollins’ layup with 1 minute, 36 seconds to go, Morris followed Hollins’ floater with a three-pointer to bring Minnesota within 50-49 with 36 seconds to play.
But with Nebraska taking its time on its last possession, the Gophers were forced to foul and Benny Parker hit both shots with 25 seconds left to take a three-point lead, setting up Minnesota’s last three-shot possession.
“I really think we got open looks,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said several times. “It just didn’t go in. I’m not sure. I thought we executed what we wanted to do pretty good.”
Hollins (21 points, 11 rebounds) looked poised to have another career night after collecting 13 points in the first half, but the Gophers couldn’t muster a speck of offense around him, and even his magic died in the second.
The Gophers were within two when he stepped to the line with 4:21 left, but the senior guard — who earlier missed two of four foul shots after a pair of technicals were called on Walter Pitchford (six points, 11 rebounds) and Shavon Shields (15 points, seven rebounds) — missed both shots.
Looking back at another seemingly cursed team finish, Hollins shrugged.
“I would say forget luck,” he said. “Seal the deal at the free-throw line. Luck shouldn’t be any part of it. We’ve got to do our thing, make our own fate.”
Starters Mo Walker, Nate Mason and Morris and sixth man Mathieu combined to shoot only 5-for-27 from the field. The Gophers connected on a season-low 30.8 percent.
They went without a field goal for 7:48 midway through the second half — yet after a three-pointer by King ended the drought, Minnesota still found itself within 39-37 of similarly struggling Nebraska, which went 4-for-19 from three-point range and missed six of its first nine free throws.
“We’re definitely on the verge,” Hollins said. “It’s just those last plays. It’s free throws. Turnovers. We’re right there.”