Michigan senior Charles Matthews hit a half-floater from the baseline as time expired to break a tie in a strange contest in Ann Arbor, Michigan on Tuesday night. While some might say Minnesota battled valiantly in the last 4 minutes of the game to tie a more talented team on the road and should be commended for hanging tough and covering the spread submitted by Vegas, the words about moral victories ring hollow.
This was not a game that Minnesota played over their heads in. In fact, they shot 40.4% from the field, a number below their 8-game conference average of 44%. While Michigan had a poor shooting night, going 33.9% from the field and 63.6% from the free throw line (compared to 44.8% and 71.2% during conference play, respectively), the Gophers committed 16 turnovers to Michigan’s 6. The Gophers held a 3-point lead at the half thanks to a tenacity on the boards from Jordan Murphy, Daniel Oturu, and Eric Curry, newly inserted into the starting lineup in replacement of Oturu.
Michigan did not play their best game. They are the more talented team and had home court advantage. But that doesn’t necessarily imply that the Gophers shouldn’t have won this game. A complete lack of offensive flow during a key 15 minute stretch in the 2nd half ruined their chances at a win that would have offset the atrocity to college basketball they committed in Urbana-Champaign a week ago. At the 18:14 mark of the second half, Gabe Kalscheur hit his second three of the game to push Minnesota’s lead to 36-29. The Crisler Center crowd sounded like the eye of a hurricane: uneasily quiet.
But Wolverine fans had nothing to fear. Enter the Richard Pitino offensive (both literally and figuratively) protocol. The Gophers all of sudden couldn’t buy a basket thanks to lazy screens, predictable offense, and the complete lack of ingenuity from their sidelines as it pertains to finding ways to get players in advantageous spots on the floor. Michigan went on a predictable 22-5 run due to mental mistakes by a Gophers’ defense that until that point had played both fundamentally sound and with ferocity. Fouling three-point shooters, giving up open lay-ups and dunks in transition, and lack of communication effectively torpedoed what had been an excellent effort on the defensive end.
By the time the Wolverine conflagration had subsided, Michigan held a 52-39 lead with 9 minutes to go. Then, something happened. Whether it be pride, frustration, or some other unquantifiable force of nature, the Gophers didn’t go quietly into that dark night. The three upperclassmen leaders of Murphy, Amir Coffey, and Dupree McBrayer decided enough was enough. The team stopped allowing Ignas Drazdeikis to gallop toward the hoop undeterred and stopped fouling him while he was shooting three-pointers. And all of a sudden, Kalscheur was hitting a game-tying three with 34 seconds left.
There isn’t much to say about the final possession because it doesn’t really matter. Michigan was lucky. Eric Curry, who played a high quality 30 minutes outside of two really poorly timed turnovers, blocked Drazdeikis with some excellent defense. And that should have been the ticket to overtime for Minnesota. But much like New Orleans Saints fans found out this past weekend, sports aren’t always fair. The ball squirted out to an lonely Matthews who put up an awkward looking floating that splashed through the net as time expired. Game.
But the point of this game isn’t that they lost on a buzzer-beater. It’s that they should have won this game well before the final 4 minutes of game time. Despite Michigan being the superior team outside the context of this single game, Minnesota was fully capable of taking this one. The fact they did not is a reflection on the lack of adaptability from the coaching staff during the previously mentioned 15-minute period in the second half and the insistence of playing Isaiah Washington for any prolonged period of time.
Washington played 12 minutes. In those 12 minutes, he was 0-1 from the field, had 1 rebound, and 5 turnovers. In a game decided by 2 points at the buzzer, its safe to say that it was the difference. But I don’t really blame Washington, I blame Pitino. Praise Jelly’s assist rate all you want but he absolutely kills the offensive efficiency of the team while he is on the floor. He also has a dangerously high turnover rate. And these things were true before today’s game. 19 games into the season is enough of a sample size to know that Washington hasn’t improved. His play in the first half hindered the ability of the Gophers to fully build out a lead when Michigan was cold from the floor. If you wanted to take this game, Washington should not have seen the floor.
I stand by this statement: this is a game the Gophers should have won and the fact that they didn’t is a reflection of the coaching staff. The Wolverines shot an astoundingly Gopher-esque 13.6% from three-point range. Brazdeikis himself was 1-7 from deep and 4-18 from the field overall. But somehow the Gophers lost?
Minnesota had 10 more turnovers than the Wolverines. Some of it is a credit to the swarming that Michigan played on defense in the second half, some of it was absolute carelessness that you shouldn’t see from a team with so much experience. Coffey, Minnesota’s best player, was 4-11 from the field which is not a terrible stat but just goes to show you that Minnesota generally speaking under performed.
General sentiment might be that the Gophers’ clawed back against an unbeatable juggernaut but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Minnesota, as it is oft to do, squandered an extremely winnable game. And we are left to question why, in year six of the Richard Pitino era, we still can’t get out of our own way.