For a second, at least the way Carlos Morris retells it, everything slowed down.
Denzel Valentine missed one of two free throws to leave yet another opening for the Gophers, who were down by three at Michigan State last Thursday and now had the basketball for one last chance with 12 seconds on the clock.
Breslin Center, packed to its corners, was reeling. The Gophers, however, were in familiar territory: This type of hold-your-breath situation has marked more than half their Big Ten games this season.
The Gophers inbounded the ball and, with Spartans coach Tom Izzo declining to foul, got it to Morris coming off a down screen. He caught it at the wing and let it fly with three seconds left, just as he had done so successfully all night.
“We needed a three,” Morris said. “So it was that time.”
Gavin Schilling crashed into him as the ball sunk through the net, giving Morris a chance to win it with a free throw. The junior college transfer missed it, but the Gophers mostly dominated overtime in a 96-90 victory.
Something about the closeness of that score might seem familiar.
In 16 Big Ten games, the Gophers have played a contest decided by six points or fewer 10 times. But perhaps more notably, the victory marked the continuation of another trend: The Gophers are starting to win these games.
“We’ve been through so many,” Morris said. “We can’t keep on panicking and doing the same things we were doing previously. We’re definitely starting to figure out things and get it right.”
The Gophers went 0-6 in such games to start the Big Ten season. Since then they have gone 3-1, with the loss coming in an out-of-control home game vs. Northwestern in which only a meaningless last-second layup by freshman Nate Mason brought the final score within those boundaries.
With No. 6 Wisconsin in town, any kind of victory Thursday would keep the Gophers’ late-season momentum alive. But the improved late-game play certainly puts the Gophers in better position to match the Big Ten leaders.
“I think more than anything, [we’re] just sticking with what we’re doing,” coach Richard Pitino said. “I’m not so sure it’s killer instinct … every game is different. I think more than anything, you learn from some of the losses and we’re just finding a way to win them when we can.”
Of the three recent close victories, two have come on the road — at Iowa and Michigan State — and represent the two best performances of the season. The other came at home against a Purdue team that came in with a four-game winning streak and had another such streak immediately after.
The Gophers have improved in the key moments that previously were killing the team: hitting big shots, getting defensive stops and avoiding the big mistake.
Against Purdue on Feb. 7, point guard DeAndre Mathieu missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with the Gophers leading by two with 23 seconds left, but center Mo Walker got a huge blocked shot in the Boilermakers’ last possession. At Iowa on Feb. 12, Mason missed one of two free throws with 19 seconds left and Minnesota up by three. Again, Walker intervened, swiping the ball from Mike Gesell and hitting two shots from the stripe after being fouled. At Michigan State, it was a pair of huge shots from Morris bookending some clutch free throws by forward Joey King that bailed out Walker, who had missed the front end of a 1-and-1 and then fouled twice to put the Gophers in a six-point hole with 34 seconds to go.
“I think we’re playing a lot more loose,” Walker said. “Earlier in the season, we’d be in a close game and everybody would get really tense and afraid to make mistakes. I think now we’ve been through it, we’ve learned from it.”
If the Gophers would have cleaned up their late-game play earlier in the season, they likely would be on the NCAA tournament doorstep. Instead, the Gophers now choose to focus on their improvements when time is running out.
“We had a lot of tough losses this season so far,” King said. “But … we just can’t dwell on them. When you just keep putting in the work in practice, this is what happens.”