The stars appeared to align for the Gophers on Thursday night.
The defending national runner-up Michigan came into town for the Big Ten opener with its star center Mitch McGary in street clothes with a back injury.
Things shifted even further into Minnesota’s favor in the second half when Wolverines sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III went down with a left ankle injury and didn’t return.
It was a golden opportunity to start out the conference season with a victory.
And Minnesota came up empty.
The Gophers struggled all night on the offensive end -- shooting less than 40 percent (21 for 53) from the field and committing 15 turnovers -- en route to a 63-60 loss to the Wolverines.
“Turnovers were definitely a factor when we’ve been taking care of the ball,” Gophers head coach Richard Pitino said. “That was a major issue. Those were lost opportunities."
The Gophers were carried by their guard play during the nonconference slate, but the trio of Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu struggled to shoot the ball all night. They combined to go 7 for 29 from the field.
“It was kind of surprising that we weren’t making shots like we normally do, especially at home,” Mathieu said. “[The Wolverines] were really good. They contested every shot.”
The Gophers held a 30-28 halftime lead and hung around late despite the offensive struggles due to a valiant effort on the glass. Minnesota -- who’d struggled on the boards all season -- out-rebounded Michigan 38-24 and collected 15 offensive rebounds.
The rebounding effort was led by junior center Elliott Eliason. Eliason contributed 10 points and 10 boards for his fourth double-double of the season.
“He’s playing well,” Pitino said. “To get 10 points, 10 rebounds in 24 minutes -- there’s a lot of positives.”
Eliason was a key cog down low for the Gophers, and his absence was noticeable when he missed ample time in the second half with foul trouble, allowing Michigan to go on multiple runs to take the lead.
“I’ve got to be smarter,” Eliason said. “It kind of eats at me, to be quite honest.”
Michigan’s second-half run was led by the sweet stroke of freshman guard Zak Irvin. Irvin hit five triples, three in the second half -- multiple with hands right in his face. He finished with 15 points.
“We knew he was a good shooter,” Andre Hollins said. “That’s the only part of the scouting report that we didn’t do a good job of. We didn’t chase him off the line.”
Irvin joined junior forward Jon Horford as the Wolverines two major contributors off the bench. The two combined to score 29 of the Wolverines 63 points as Michigan powered through without its top-two players.
“Everybody has to be ready all the time.” Michigan head coach John Beilein said. “The tenth and eleventh guy can be in any of these games.”
Minnesota trailed 60-54 with 30 seconds to play before Malik Smith cashed a three from the corner. Smith was then fouled on a three-point attempt with six seconds left and hit all three free throws to bring the Gophers to within 61-60.
Smith finished with 12 points in just 17 minutes.
“He’s fearless,” Pitino said. “He was very helpful. I don’t think we’d be in the position we were late in the game if it wasn’t for him.”
The Gophers had a shot to send the game into overtime in the waning seconds, but their fate was sealed when Mathieu’s desperation three bounced off the iron as time expired.
Andre Hollins said the Gophers can learn from their late-game execution struggles.
“[Michigan] hit big shots, they made big plays,” Hollins said, “and we turned the ball over.”
The Gophers will attempt to correct those mistakes on Sunday when they host Purdue.