As much as fans should be proud of the way the Gophers battled Wisconsin in Saturday's 78-76 overtime loss, the fact is that Richard Pitino's team lost another close game because of poor execution on the final possession.
In overtime losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin at home and Penn State on the road, Pitino put the ball in the hands of his best playmakers, but they couldn't get a basket when it mattered most.
Is that Pitino's fault for drawing up the wrong play? Is it the players' fault for missing the shots? It's probably a bit of both, but something has to change if the Gophers are going to win close games this season.
Senior Akeem Springs, who finished with 16 points in his first Big Ten start, hit the three-pointer to send the game into overtime Saturday, but he was forced to throw up a desperation three at the end of overtime when the play broke down.
Junior leading scorer Nate Mason, who struggled with just eight points on 3-for-14 shooting against Wisconsin, missed last-second shots in losses to Penn State and Michigan State. Freshman Amir Coffey had a team-high 19 points Saturday, but he missed a shot at the end of regulation in the Big Ten opener.
So which player should get the ball for a last-second shot if another game comes down to the wire?
“I just think it’s a feel,” Pitino said. “Akeem obviously hit a big one at the end of regulation. He’s got that kind of quick release where he can get it up. You’re going to have to make tough shots at the end of games. Bronson (Koenig) did. We did not. Got to give them credit.”
Koenig’s three-pointer with 44 seconds left in overtime was the final go-ahead basket for Wisconsin. Ethan Happ made just one of two free throws to set up the last play for the Gophers to win or tie the game with 12 seconds remaining.
"I thought the only thing was Bakary (Konaté) was supposed to set a down (screen) for Akeem because Akeem was feeling it,” Pitino said. “Bakary kind of rushed up, he should have spaced it, but at the end of the day, (it’s about) players making plays.”
BIGS OUTPLAYED: Happ’s 28 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and five blocks and Nigel Hayes’ 21 points were the reason Wisconsin kept it so close with the Gophers in regulation after falling behind.
Happ scored 20 of his points during an 11-minute stretch in the second half, especially with Reggie Lynch on the bench in foul trouble. Minnesota was outscored 44-24 in points in the paint.
Lynch, Eric Curry, Bakary Konate and Jordan Murphy combined to score just 19 points on 8-for-17 shooting. The Gophers have been dominated inside in almost every conference game this season.
In Big Ten play, Michigan State’s Nick Ward had 22 points and 10 rebounds in the Big Ten opener at the Barn. Caleb Swanigan had 28 points and 22 rebounds in Purdue’s loss against Minnesota (Mason’s 31 points offset that). Penn State’s Mike Watkins had 15 points and 15 rebounds last week against the Gophers. And now Happ and Hayes went to work to help the Badgers escape Saturday.
Lynch had eight points, seven rebounds and five blocks in 20 minutes, which was efficient in foul trouble. But Murphy was non-existent and sat for most of the second half after posting just four points and one rebound in 26 minutes.
GREAT CROWD: The Gophers dropped the second Big Ten home game this season, but they had their first sellout Saturday since the Wisconsin game in 2015.
The Minnesota basketball team had 12 prospects in attendance and the football team had nearly 20 players taking in the Barn atmosphere on visits.
Pitino and his players appreciated the fan support for the biggest game so far this season.
"I didn't see many open seats," Coffey said. "That was great to see. I thank the fans for coming out and supporting us. Playing on the home court always gives you energy because the crowd is right there with you."
LINEUP CHANGE: Sophomore Dupree McBrayer came off the bench for the first time this season and finished with 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting with four assists and one turnover in 21 minutes. Pitino said McBrayer handled losing the starter role well during practice during the week.
Springs, who had eight points in the first half Saturday, played a season-high 36 minutes in a starting role for the second time this season.