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2017 NCAA Tournament: Minnesota loses tough battle to Middle Tennessee State, 81-72

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A fun season comes to an abrupt end.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Minnesota vs Middle Tennessee State Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Middle Tennessee State shot their way past the Golden Gophers in today’s opening round game of the NCAA Tournament in Milwaukee. This game was the popular 5/12 upset pick and that is exactly how it played out with the Blue Raiders winning 81-72 and controlling most of the game.

The Gophers opened up the game with a quick 7-0 run. Jordan Murphy scored an easy two in the paint, Amir Coffey hit an open three and Reggie Lynch scored another easy one in the paint. It looked early like Minnesota had a gameplan to rule the paint.

A time out was called and the Blue Raiders began mixing up their defense, mostly between a trapping 1-3-1 and man to man. The game was close throughout the half until Reggie Lynch picked up two quick fouls around the 8 minutes mark and from that point it was all Blue Raiders. They finished the half up 6 in a game that really wasn’t nearly that close.

At the break, Lynch had only played 8 minutes. Mason and McBrayer combined for 1/10 shooting, the only basket coming from McBrayer’s three in the final minute of the half.

Unfortunately the second half was not much better. Middle Tennessee State rode hot shooting and opened up 17 point lead with 12:36 remaining. They used a 16-3 run to get the game cut down to a 4-point margin with 6:43 but that was a close as they would get. At that point, the lack of depth for the Gophers, along with a hip injury to Mason really started to come into play. Coach Pitino on the waves of Blue Raiders coming into the game.

“We were getting tired and they kept subbing and subbing. And they were getting sharper as the game wore on.”

Minnesota’s All-Big Ten point guard and leading scorer, Nate Mason really struggled and this was one of the keys to today’s loss. Scoreless in the first half and just 5 points in the second half with four turnovers. This was easily his worst game of the year, possibly his Gopher career. Unfortunate that it came in such a big game. By the end it was rather clear he was not 100%, clearly in pain and not moving well due to a hip injury sustained in the second half.

The other key to the loss is the one we feared all week. Reggie Lynch getting into foul trouble really opened up the offense for Middle Tennessee State. They went on a run of making 7 straight field goals. Nobody was there to protect the rim for the Minnesota defense and offensively we lacked that inside presence that was dominant at times early in the half and at times in the second.

To Middle Tennessee State’s credit they controlled this game. Their switching up of defenses kept the Gopher offense off balance throughout the game. When Lynch was out they did what they wanted to do on offense and they executed well offensively throughout the game. Reggie Upshaw led all scorers with 19 points and Giddy Potts chipped in 15 despite missing some time with foul trouble. But it was Upshaw who halted the Gopher’s runs a couple times,

JaCorey was struggling early and Giddy was in foul trouple. I just thought this was the perfect time for me to step up to try to shoulder the offense and get everybody else going.

The Blue Raiders shot 48% for the game and scored 81 points. To Coach Pitino this game wasn’t as much about the lack of his team’s offense.

“I thought we were attacking it pretty well (the MTSU 1-3-1), we just couldn’t get stops. I didn’t really have a problem with the offense, I had a much bigger problem with the rebounding and the defense.”

For the Gophers? Amir Coffey had a very good game trying to pick up the offense that was dropped by Mason. Coffey had 17 to lead the Gophers, hitting three 3s. Coffey really was a highlight for Minnesota, the freshman was poised throughout and came ready to play on this bigger stage. Dupree McBrayer also had 16 points and 5 assists in what was a good game by the sophomore.

This was a disappointing end to what was a fantastic season. Soon we can all look back and truly appreciate how much fun this season was. And soon we’ll be able to start trying to temper expectations for next year. But for today, we lost an NCAA Tournament game as a favored seed.