EVANSTON, ILL. – Coach Ben Johnson knew his Gophers offense would have a tough time putting points on the scoreboard Saturday without leading scorer Dawson Garcia at Northwestern, so it was another area that was a big disappointment.
One of the worst defensive performances in Big Ten play compounded with turnover issues resulted in the Gophers' 81-61 loss to the Wildcats in front of an announced crowd of 6,064 at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
"To give up 81 points and combine that with the 15 turnovers, that's not a recipe to have success or to give yourself a chance," Johnson said. "And to not be able to come back and give that same competitive fight is disappointing."
Jamison Battle led the way with 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting from the floor for the Gophers (7-13, 1-9 Big Ten). But Garcia missed his second consecutive game while recovering from a bone bruise in his right foot suffered in a Jan. 22 loss at Michigan.
Chase Audige and Boo Buie combined for 45 points and 10 assists for the Wildcats (15-5, 6-3), who shot 52% from the floor.
"I think the offense will find its way," Johnson said. "I'm just more disappointed with the defensive effort to give up 81. Credit to those guys. They played downhill and they were aggressive."
In Wednesday's 61-57 loss vs. Indiana, Johnson was proud of his seven scholarship players battling the Hoosiers and playing well enough to lead down the stretch. The opposite was the case Saturday, with Northwestern leading 45-28 in the first half after shooting 55%.
Freshman big man Pharrel Payne made his first career start Saturday after missing the previous game while on concussion protocol. Payne had trouble establishing an inside presence, with three points and four of the team's 15 turnovers.
"I thought today for whatever reason even when we had the early lead, it didn't feel the same," Johnson said. "We can't give into circumstance. We have to find a way to play with the same edge we did versus Indiana."
Battle scored his first basket of the game on a jumper for a 9-5 lead. Joshua Ola-Joseph finished down the lane with a floater for an 11-7 advantage, but that woke up Northwestern's explosive backcourt.
Audige, who had a game-high 24 points, took control to help the Wildcats outscore the Gophers 31-8 in the first half. The senior guard had eight points during a decisive 11-0 run.
Battle struggled to get open looks early, but his three-pointer cut it 27-18 with 6:43 left. The Wildcats, who scored 13 points on 11 turnovers in the first half, got back-to-back steals from Buie on Ta'Lon Cooper that fueled a 9-0 run. Buie finished with 21 points and eight assists.
The Gophers entered Saturday as the lowest-scoring team in the Big Ten at 62.2 points per game. It's been an even bigger nightmare since their 70-67 victory at Ohio State Jan. 12. During the five-game losing streak, they are averaging only 55 points.
To make matters worse this season, the Gophers are dead last in foul shooting in Division I, living up to that distinction going 16-for-26 on Saturday.
A defensive identity is what the Gophers needed to adopt in Johnson's second season. After holding the Hoosiers to 37% shooting Wednesday, Minnesota took a step back in Evanston.
"The biggest thing for us is we've had games defensively when we're so good," Battle said. "Ohio State, for example, we were so locked in and so dialed in. We have to keep going back to that game. Looking at what we did in that game: playing hard and diving on loose balls. Even against Indiana loose balls went our way because we were playing the right way."
In the second half, the Wildcats stretched their lead to 61-36 after a three from Audige on a late close-out with the Gophers playing a disjointed 2-3 zone.
Effort wasn't always the issue. Chemistry and communication were missing. Following Cooper's layup that made it a 17-point deficit late in the second half, Audige blew by his defender for an uncontested dunk in the halfcourt.
The toughest stretch of Big Ten play continues with five of the next eight games on the road, including Wednesday at Rutgers.