And that's how quickly the fun comes to an end.
After a back and forth first half, our Golden Gophers lost control of a game with the Texas Longhorns Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. While all of us knew the Gophers didn't have a Final Four run in them this year and that this was an obvious building year, it's hard not to be feel disappointment. It's been a long season as we've watched Tubby Smith start the process of turning this program into a winner. And now it's over.
While there'll be plenty of time to look back to the season that was and ahead to the exciting future, let's rehash what happened in Texas' 76-62 win in Greensboro.
The biggest difference? Texas could hit the three. A.J. Abrams was the best player on the court. And when the game was in doubt early in the second half, Abrams ran off 12 straight points, all on threes, to bury a Minnesota team that had just clawed back to within 3 points. We can question Coach Smith's decision to move to a 2-3 zone that prompted Abrams' hot streak, but it probably wouldn't have mattered. Abrams hit 8 three pointers (26 points) on the night. The Gophers hit 4 from three.
The Gophers had no consistent offensive answer. Lawrence Westbrook came to play and tried to carry the Gophers as best he could. He finished with a team high 19, but 15 of that was in the first half. No other Minnesota player stepped up offensively. Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson were busy trying to slow down Texas behemoth center Dexter Pittman.
But what was most disappointing was the defense. We're used to the questionable offense, but for long stretches of the game the Gophers weren't stopping the ball in transition. That led to easy lay ups. Rotation on the perimeter might have been as bad as it's been all year. And on the glass, where the Gophers made great strides this year, the Longhorns owned Minnesota. And it wasn't just Pittman. Our guards weren't boxing out. Even Damian Johnson and Paul Carter were out-hustled on defensive rebounds. The result was a UT butt-kicking on the glass, outrebounding Minnesota 40-29.
For about two-thirds of the first half the Gophers maintained a lead. If it wasn't for Pittman being too much of a force inside, the Gophers might have run away to a big early lead. But Pittman and some timely outside shooting from Texas provided the Longhorns a late second half lead that crept to 4 at 39-35 at halftime.
Defensively, the Gophers weren't their usual stingy selves in the first half. Rotation was slow. Driving lanes weren't cut off and Pittman was able to det whatever position he wanted inside. Pittman on the inside, combined with 6-for-11 shooting from three gave the Longhorns a first half edge.
As the second half came, Texas' late momentum carried over. It was shockingly reminiscent to Minnesota games all year. They'd start strong. Fade a bit in the first half and then scratch and claw to hang on in the second. But little things bit them this time. It wasn't a byproduct of struggling in the half-court. Instead, the Gophers weren't getting back on defense. They were taking early and out of control shots. Texas capitalized. Texas quickly pulled out to an 8 point lead.
But Tubby had an answer, if briefly. He switched to a 2-3 zone that Texas had to adjust to. It took them awhile and the Gophers cut the lead to 3, and after a Devron Bostick miss from the outside Abrams hit four straight triples to put the Longhorns up double digits. That was too much to overcome.
As the last minutes of the second half ticked away, the Minnesota players were probably as dejected as many of us fans. And while this loss, any loss, is disappointing, we really do need to realize that this team was one year ahead of schedule in this spot. Better days are ahead of us. This group will be back here next year, with experience and more talent.
Let's keep our heads up. Tubby Smith was holding his head and smiling as he shook hands with the Texas players. I bet it's because he knows this is just the beginning.