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Minnesota Basketball: Gophers drop a tough game to Wisconsin 59-61

A second-half rally falls short, losing to the Badgers for the 7th consecutive game

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin came into the Barn and held off the Gophers to win 59-61, their 7th straight win in the rivalry.

The Gophers opened the game with a clear strategy to pound the ball to Pharrel Payne in the paint, with Payne getting his second start in a row. This was paying early dividends with an early basket, rebounding his own miss for a putback, and then getting to the free throw line twice in the first four minutes. Payne was just 14 from the line and from that point on the Badgers really controlled the lane on both ends of the floor.

The rest of the first half was all Badgers, led by AJ Storr. At the break, the St. John’s transfer had 9 points and 7 rebounds.

But as a team, the Badgers were all red hot, leading by 15 with just under 5 minutes to go after Nolan Winter three-pointer. This was part of a 15-2 run over a 5:36 span that ended when Elijah Hawkins finally hit a much needed Gopher 3. But Wisconsin ended the half shooting 50% from the floor, including 5/10 from three, and took a 10-point lead into the break.

Minnesota in the first half struggled! Hawkings, Mike Mitchell and Braeden Carrington combined for 2/13 from three and as a team the Gopher were just 31% from the floor. That shooting disparity was painful to watch.

From an efficiency standpoint, the Badgers were scoring 1.13 point per each of their possessions while the Gophers were 0.83. A dramatic difference.

But the second half was a very different story. The Gophers came out, not only making shots but also playing with some purpose and toughness. Trailing by 10 and having only scored 24 points in the first half, the Gophers started the second half by making their first 5 three-point attempts.

Making shots is often a function of getting the right looks at the right time and in rhythm. The first-half threes attempted by Minnesota were often rushed and low-percentage shots. In the second half, they were moving with purpose on offense and getting themselves more open looks that started to fall. Hawkins, Mitchell and Dawson Garcia played all 20 minutes of the second half and were willing their team to a comeback win over the #10 Badgers.

The Gophers took their first lead of the game with 11:57 remaining on a Cam Christie made three. After the 8 minute comeback, Wisconsin then retook the lead, extending it back up to 8. Four baskets from four different players to lead 54-46 with 7:16 to play.The Gophers would not go away and the remaining 12 minutes were a Big Ten rivalry battle.

A Hawkins layup, a stop on defense, a Payne basket assisted by Hawkins, a steal on defense and then a Garcia three (again, assisted by Hawkins) brought the lead back down to 1 again.

The Badgers then took the ball to their end of the floor and had one of the odd possessioand had a 40-second possession where Minnesota was called for 4 fouls. Hawkins with 2 fouls on the floor, Carrington with another and then Payne fouling Tyler Wahl as he was shooting. Wahl goes 12 and after that lengthy possession, the Gophers still trailed by only 2.

Following the final media timeout the Gophers scored on back-to-back possessions, both by Garcia. Leading 57-55 with under 2 minutes, the Gophers get another defensive stop but turn it over on a sloppy, fast-break pass by Hawkins leading to a Storr dunk.

Throughout this season the Gophers have been a much-improved basketball team, but executing in the final minutes has not particularly been a strength. This was the time to execute and finish at home with a win. But things got a little weird.

The Gophers executed what was probably their best offensive possession in the final 2 minutes, getting Payne open in the lane and Hawkins making a great pass to get him the ball. But Payne catches the ball awkwardly and the officials call him for traveling.

On their possession, Wisconsin misses a Max Klesmit shot in the lane but Storr comes flying down the lane, attempting to put it back for the lead. Instead Storr ends up holding the rim with his left hand, keeping him suspended in the air so he could dunk it with his right hand. A clear goal-tending and additionally Storr was called for a technical foul.

The Gophers were awarded a free throw attempt and the ball with 1:04 left in the game. Garcia misses the free throw, keeping the game tied. On their offensive possession they run the clock down, presumably to end the game with 2 possessions to Wisconsin’s 1. But once again, offensive execution was a struggle and the Gophers settle for a deep Garcia three-point attempts as the shot clock was expiring. A miss, but Carrington gets an offensive rebound and is fouled.

Carrington, goes 12 from the line giving the Gophers the lead. On the other end Wisconsin quickly gets to the rim and Storr is fouled. He makes both free throws, giving the lead back to Wisconsin. The Gophers again struggle to get a good look on offense, Hawkins misses a shot and now the Gophers are forced to foul Wahl. He makes both to give the Badgers a 3-point lead with 5 seconds.

Wisconsin fouls Mitchell who makes the first, intentionally misses the second and miraculously has an open shot along the baseline to tie the game. But it hits the front of the rim and the Badgers ended the game with a win. Wahl ended the game with 16 points only missing 1 shot and adding 4 assists as the Lakeville North graduate led the Badgers.

The good news in this game? The Gophers played great in the second half. They were moving on offense, moving the ball, getting good looks and played with so much toughness defensively.

But 5/13 from the free throw line, shooting 31% in the first half and not being able to get good looks when it matters most thwarted their upset bid. Hawkins

The result pushes Minnesota to 3-5 in the Big Ten 12-7 overall and a trip to Penn State on Saturday is next.