The Gophers men’s basketball team is a long way from beginning the kind of turnaround that would allow it to even approach the NIT championship finish of last year’s squad.
But with opportunities growing fewer, the Gophers began the final nine-game stretch of Big Ten play with a victory.
Three games after crumbling in an ugly bout at Nebraska, the Gophers got a quick revenge, pushing past the Cornhuskers 60-42 on Saturday night at Williams Arena to move to 3-7 in the Big Ten.
“I think more than anything, we were tired of losing the way we’re losing,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said of a team that has six conference losses by one or two possessions. “I’ve never seen so many close losses in such short duration.”
The Gophers (14-9 overall), active in their zone defense, forced the Cornhuskers (12-9, 4-5 Big Ten) into almost as many turnovers (15) as they had points (16) in the first half. After halftime, the Gophers landed some of the big late-game shots that have evaded the team in Pitino’s second year with the program.
Finally recovering from a rough first half, the Huskers pulled within 39-35 after Tai Webster sank a three-pointer from the wing with 9 minutes, 26 seconds to go.
The Gophers promptly responded with a 10-2 run to give them their largest lead at 49-37 with 4:34 left. Leslee Smith came back with a layup and three-pointer on consecutive possessions, and once more the Gophers found themselves in the danger zone that has led to a barrage of breakdowns the entire month of January.
This time, senior Andre Hollins — filling up the boxscore despite a sore iliotibial band in his right leg that limited him in practice Friday — and freshman Nate Mason drilled three-pointers and hit both ends of a pair of one-and-ones in a span of 74 seconds, putting the game out of reach at 59-42 with 1:16 to go.
“Our defense gave us confidence on offense,” Hollins said. “When we were getting stops, we were like, ‘All right.’ ”
He finished with 12 points, five rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal. Fellow senior Mo Walker — consistently the Gophers’ best threat in the game — scored 19 to go with eight rebounds, two blocks and three steals.
The Gophers came out in the 2-3 zone that had kept Nebraska off-balance the last time out, and they never had a need to come out of it. The Huskers never fully adjusted, turning over the ball 20 times — the most turnovers Minnesota has caused in Big Ten play — and forcing up shots at the end of shot clocks after scrambling to adjust to the Gophers’ press. The Gophers held driving specialists Terran Petteway and Walter Pitchford to 14 points total, while wing Shavon Shields went 4-for-15 from the field.
“Their ability to press and then seamlessly go into zone while we were trying to set up zone [offense] was probably our most difficult challenge,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said.
The Gophers don’t play again until Saturday, and they will receive two days off from practice — a break that comes aptly after a victory but also at a necessary time, Pitino said.
“These guys are banged up,” Pitino said of his players. “It’s never been a question of effort. So they need that break because we don’t have a lot of depth right now.”