Teams with 10 or more losses in mid-February like the Gophers can’t afford to drop too many more games to stay in contention for the NCAA tournament.
So Sunday had heavy March Madness implications, and when the Gophers needed their best, they were outscored 11-0 in the last 5:25 of a 58-55 loss against No. 21 Iowa in front of an announced sellout crowd of 14,625 at Williams Arena.
Five of six possessions in that final stretch ended in a turnover, and Daniel Oturu’s errant front-end free throw negated a chance to tie the score in the waning seconds.
The 6-10 sophomore star, still toeing the line, buried his head in his hands after Iowa grabbed the rebound.
“We didn’t want to go win that game when we needed to,” coach Richard Pitino said.
The Gophers now have to hope they won’t look back on Sunday and say this was the loss that sealed their fate.
Oturu’s missed free throw was just one of several mistakes that cost the Gophers (12-12, 6-8 Big Ten) the game.
Minnesota broke a 47-47 tie with an 8-0 run, but the lead with just over five minutes left was far from a cushion considering the pressure of being in desperation mode for a quality win.
Four different players committed late turnovers, and only two players even attempted a shot in the last four minutes. Marcus Carr had a shot blocked, and his half-court heave fell short at the buzzer.
“Right now, it’s do-or-die time for us,” sophomore Gabe Kalscheur said. “Home, away, we got to get every win possible.”
Even before the late collapse, rarely seen mistakes piled up, such as two 10-second violations for not getting the ball over midcourt and a lane violation on a free throw.
Iowa’s Luka Garza, who scored a game-high 24 points, drilled back-to-back shots, including a three-pointer with 2:21 left that cut the Gophers’ lead to 55-54.
The Hawkeyes (18-8, 9-6) tied the score on Ryan Kriener’s free throw, and they took a 57-55 lead on Bakari Evelyn’s two foul shots at the 1:15 mark.
With a chance to tie the score, Pitino called a timeout on the ensuing possession when his offense stalled against a zone defense. Carr had been the hero in past games, but his pass to Oturu sailed out of bounds with under a minute remaining.
The Gophers got the ball back again down two points, but Kriener blocked Carr’s three-pointer. Oturu was then fouled by Garza hauling in the loose ball, but he missed the front end of the 1-and-1 with 3.8 seconds to play.
Oturu and Carr combined for seven turnovers, and the Gophers committed a total of 13 — 10 in the second half. Minnesota’s starters shot 13-for-40 from the field and 6-for-12 on free throws.
Entering Sunday’s game, the Gophers were not among the 11 Big Ten teams projected to make the NCAA tournament, but they could’ve gone from being one of the first four out to one of the last four in if they had beaten Iowa, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm tweeted Sunday that “Minnesota in serious trouble now.” Palm said the Gophers need to find a way to finish with at least with 17 wins, including Big Ten tournament games, and be three games above .500 to have a chance.
The Gophers have six regular-season games remaining, and only three are considered Quadrant 1 win opportunities, which impress the NCAA tournament selection committee the most. Those are vs. Maryland at home and Wisconsin and Indiana on the road.
“It’s obviously in the back of our mind,” Carr said. “We obviously want to go to the tournament. When each game approaches, we’re focusing on that game and that game only. But we know with each win it gives us a better opportunity, a better chance to be in the tournament.”