This time, there was no game-changer to point at, no silver linings to cling to.
A day after coach Richard Pitino suggested the Gophers men’s basketball team was on an “upward trajectory” in the Big Ten, Saturday’s 77-52 rout by Northwestern at Williams Arena looked inevitable nearly from the start.
The Gophers (6-10, 0-4 Big Ten) looked uninspired and wholly overmatched on their home court as they picked up their fifth consecutive loss and eighth in nine games in perhaps their ugliest performance yet, making talk of improvement look about as absurd as the scoring differential.
Northwestern (14-3, 2-2) had its biggest victory ever at Minnesota, besting a 45-23 victory in 1931. The Wildcats, 4-0 on the road this season, had their biggest victory in a Big Ten road game since beating Chicago 77-20 on Jan. 14, 1944. They are 3-0 at Williams Arena with Pitino on the adjacent bench.
“They just totally outplayed us,” Pitino said. “We’ve got to do a better job, certainly, and that’s all on me.”
The Gophers trailed 32-26 at the break after losing what would be their last lead less than six minutes into the game, and then got rolled after halftime. Northwestern outscored them 45-26 in the final 20 minutes while shooting 65.2 percent from the floor (15-for-23) and started the half on a 9-0 run, seemingly sucking the air out of the building.
“Those first four minutes, they got us,” Pitino said. “And it altered the game.”
But the Wildcats’ success wasn’t about a few hot streaks and big moments. Rather, they took control early and steadily and consistently dominated in every major facet of the game. Northwestern nearly doubled the Gophers’ rebounds (33-17). The Wildcats scored in transition and in the half court. They finished with 18 assists.
Meanwhile, the Gophers were a disorganized mess. Pitino suggested his team lost its confidence and stopped believing it could turn things around early in the second half. Seniors Carlos Morris and Joey King combined for only 10 points. The Gophers, attempting 18 three-pointers but making only five, still were without any player with at least 10 points until 4 minutes, 40 seconds remained, when Nate Mason hit a jumper to get to 11.
Freshman standout Jordan Murphy, who sat with two fouls with 13:21 left in the first half, struggled offensively, shooting 1-for-5 while turning over the ball four times.
“I’ve got to get better at everything,” Murphy said. “For us, not just to get out of this slump, but to be more effective. I’ve got to be better at everything.”
Defensively, the Gophers zone was sluggish to adjust and couldn’t contain shooters or their deep passes, allowing the Wildcats to heat up. Joey van Zegeren reeled off a stretch of four consecutive dunks spanning from the end of the first half to the start of the second. Freshman Aaron Falzon hit six three-pointers on his way to a game-high 20 points while Northwestern drilled 11 threes overall.
“They were knocking ’em down,” King said. “And it seemed like they never missed.”
The announced crowd of 10,436, many fans shouting frustrations with what they perceived as a lack of energy and effort, began to file out into the frigid afternoon with 10 minutes still on the clock.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” King said. “I’m disappointed with myself, I’m disappointed with how things are going, but we’re going to have to keep fighting.
“We tried to fight back in spurts but at the level they were shooting the ball, we really didn’t have a chance to come back in the second half.”