MINNEAPOLIS — One had to wonder what was going through the mind of Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle on Wednesday night as he listened to his men’s basketball coach, Richard Pitino, try to explain his team’s latest devastating defeat at Williams Arena.
The Gophers had somehow managed to turn a 17-point first-half lead against ninth-ranked Maryland into a 74-73 loss that was decided on Darryl Morsell’s three-pointer with just over one second left in regulation. “Obviously, a tough one there,” Pitino said in what amounted to an all-time understatement. “As difficult a game as I’ve been part of.”
No one doubted how difficult the loss was — especially since it basically ended any hope the Gophers had of making a second consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament — but what made it even more tough to take was the fact it marked the third consecutive home game in with Pitino’s team had melted down.
There was the three-point loss to Iowa on Feb. 16 in which the Gophers went the final 5 minutes, 25 seconds without scoring, coughing up an eight-point lead and giving up the final 11 points. Three days later, the Gophers held an early 10-point advantage against Indiana but ended up shooting only 4-of-25 from three-point range in a 68-56 loss.
Following a 26-point victory Sunday at woeful Northwestern, the Gophers came out Wednesday before an announced crowd of 9,252 fans at Williams Arena (there were plenty of empty seats) and took complete control against the Big Ten-leading Terrapins (23-5, 13-4). Those in attendance roared their approval as Minnesota made 7-of-13 three-pointers in the opening half and took a 47-31 lead. Maryland hit only 2-of-14 shots from long range in the first 20 minutes as the Gophers played tenacious defense.
But Maryland narrowed the Gophers lead to three points with 45 seconds left. Minnesota’s Gabe Kalscheur got the lead back to four by hitting the first of two free throws with 39 seconds remaining before he missed the second. Maryland failed to score and with 24 seconds left the Gophers’ Marcus Carr went to the line and missed the front end of a one-and-one.
The Terps’ Anthony Cowan missed a three-point attempt but Jalen Smith grabbed the rebound and slammed it home. It was now a two-point Minnesota lead. Cowan fouled Kalscheur, who missed the front end of his one-and-one and Aaron Wiggins got the ball to Morsell for what proved to be the winning basketball. Daniel Oturu missed a turnaround jumper as the horn sounded. The Gophers finished 11-of-18 from the free-throw line, including 3-of-7 in the second half.
“I think we’ve missed some really important free throws in all three of them, to be honest,” Pitino said when asked if there was a common theme to the Iowa, Indiana and Maryland defeats. “I really do. Obviously, that Iowa one and then this one.”
It was another brilliant game for Oturu, who had 28 points and 11 rebounds in 38 minutes. Carr added 19 points and seven assists, although he did have five turnovers in 40 minutes. That workload is nothing new for Carr in a season in which the point guard has been asked to play huge minutes on a consistent basis and often has worn down in the second half. In fact, Carr’s playing time is probably the best example of just how little depth the Gophers have this season.
How devastating was this loss? Ordinarily a couple of Gophers players are made available to the media in the press conference room after games. On Wednesday night, the media was informed no players would be talking.
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) February 27, 2020
Asked about the trio of home losses, Pitino described them as “different levels of devastation.” “This has been very, very difficult,” he said. “We could have won all three of them. I feel for our guys, they are playing hard. I’ve just got to, obviously, got them back and get them positive again.”
The Gophers will play at Wisconsin on Sunday, at Indiana on March 4 and close the regular season at home on March 8 against Nebraska before playing in the Big Ten tournament. While Pitino attempted to remain positive on Wednesday, he acknowledged he felt his team needed to beat Maryland to be in consideration for an NCAA berth. “I did,” he said. “(We’re) kind of running out time here.”
The Gophers are 13-14 overall and 7-10 in the conference and one has to wonder if Pitino is running out of time as well. That’s a question only Coyle knows the answer to at this point. Pitino agreed to a two-year contract extension last April after guiding the Gophers to an NCAA tournament win over Louisville in the first round.
His annual salary was increased to $2 million, up from about $1.7 million in 2018-19, and his contract now runs through the 2023-24 season. The buyout on Pitino’s contract after this season would be $2 million. That figure decreases to $1.75 million before April 30, 2021, and $1.5 million before April 30, 2022.
Pitino, 37, is in his seventh season as the Gophers coach and has been to the NCAA tournament twice. But he also is 47-80 in Big Ten games and the past three conference losses have been difficult for everyone, including Coyle, to take.
“When you’re in this profession, you think about your team, you think about your family, you try to stay confident,” Pitino said when asked whether he was concerned about his job. “Any time you lose close games, you’ve got to evaluate every single game. But I’m very, very confident what we’re doing here. I think our guys are really good kids and getting better. We can’t worry about that. We’ve got to move onto the next one.”
But how many more “next ones” Pitino has left as the Gophers coach has to be in serious question.