It had been five years since the Gophers men's basketball team suffered a bigger loss at Northwestern than its 81-61 defeat Saturday at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

That's not what second-year Gophers coach Ben Johnson envisioned when his team battled Indiana in a four-point loss with only seven scholarship players just a few days earlier.

The Gophers (7-12, 1-9 Big Ten) welcomed freshman big man Pharrel Payne back into the rotation, giving them eight scholarship bodies Saturday. They still didn't have the same competitive fight after falling behind in Evanston. Here are four takeaways from Saturday's loss at Northwestern:

Backcourt outplayed

Wildcats coach Chris Collins is in his 10th season with the program, but he's never had a backcourt tandem as experienced and explosive as Chase Audige and Boo Buie this season.

Audige and Buie outscored the Gophers starting backcourt of Ta'Lon Cooper and Taurus Samuels 45-19 in combined points, but this isn't something new for the U.

In losses to Indiana (14 points combined), Michigan (15), Illinois (16), and Purdue (10), Cooper and Samuels just haven't been giving the Gophers much offensive punch together. Much of that is Samuels' presence in the lineup as more to limit turnovers than score.

Freshmen Braeden Carrington and Jaden Henley are better offensive threats than Samuels. But Carrington is sidelined indefinitely with a right leg injury. Henley has shown more playmaking ability in the last two games, which could be a good sign moving forward in conference play.

Defensive letdown

Johnson preached to his players after Wednesday's loss to Indiana that their defensive effort was a big part of what the Gophers identity needed to be the rest of the year.

Indiana and Michigan were held to 37% shooting in back-to-back games against the Gophers, giving Johnson's team a chance to win down the stretch. That was even with Trayce Jackson-Davis going beast mode with 25 points and 21 rebounds last Wednesday.

The Gophers let Audige score 15 of his Big Ten season-high 24 points in the first half Saturday. Buie also 12 of his 21 points in the second half, to go with eight assists. But the Gophers also allowed a third player to make a significant impact for Northwestern. Robbie Beran scored seven points combined in his previous two games, but he finished with 14 points, including 3-for-4 from three-point range Saturday.

The Wildcats shot 52% from the field, including 9-for-20 from three-point range. That was the second-highest field goal percentage by a Big Ten opponent against the Gophers this season. The only better shooting game was by Michigan (52.4%) in the U's 90-75 loss on Dec. 8.

Battle gets to the line

The bright spot during the U's current five-game losing streak has been last year's leading scorer Jamison Battle finding his confidence to carry the Gophers offensively at times.

Several times each game, the Gophers find themselves in a familiar place suffering through lengthy scoring droughts. Battle, who had his second straight 20-point performance, struggled to get open looks early in the first half.

Playing primarily on the wing this season forced Battle to make a big adjustment to his game while facing quicker and more athletic defenders. After failing to attempt a free throw in six-straight games, he attacked the basket and drew contact much more often Saturday.

Battle finished with 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting, but he also went 4-for-5 from the foul line. That was a season-high in free throws attempted. Part of the reason the Gophers are the worst free-throw shooting team in the country (59.3%) is because Battle doesn't go to the charity stripe enough. He's shooting 83% at the line this season.

Turnover issues

Payne was starting to make strides in being much more comfortable on the court as a freshman in the frontcourt until he missed last week's game against Indiana with concussion protocol.

In his return Saturday, though, the Cottage Grove native was a bit shaky under pressure finishing with four of the team's 15 turnovers. He ranks second on the team with 2.1 turnovers per game this season.

But after making five turnovers Jan. 12 at Ohio State, Payne had just three turnovers combined in the next three games while averaging 26 minutes per contest.

Cooper, who had four turnovers Saturday, flirted with leading all Big Ten players in assists to begin the season, but facing just conference opponents has led to a different story. The Morehead State transfer ranks eighth with 4.3 assists per game in league games, but he averages the fourth-most turnovers per game (2.6). That dropped Cooper's turnover ratio to 11th in the Big Ten at plus-1.7.

The Gophers have enough issues scoring in the Big Ten, but they've committed 15 turnovers twice in the past three games (also in a 60-56 loss at Michigan).