With two road contests looming in their final games of the regular season, the Gophers knew they needed to improve on their 1-7 record in away games in order to make the NCAA tournament.
Facing a team below them in the conference standings, the Gophers failed to capitalize on Sunday.Minnesota (17-11, 7-10 Big Ten) fell to Rutgers (13-14, 6-11 Big Ten) 68-64 in a back-and-forth game. Once again, the Gophers failed to put together a complete 40 minutes on the road.
"They got really physical with us," head coach Richard Pitino told the Gopher radio network. "We started turning the ball over, they made some really big plays [and] we missed a couple crucial free throws. That's a tough road environment."
Rutgers got out to an early 20-13 edge, locking in on defending senior Jordan Murphy in the paint. With the Scarlet Knights paying special attention to the senior, the Gophers' freshmen stepped up to turn the tide.
Gabe Kalscheur gave Minnesota a spark, connecting on all five of his 3-point field goals in the first half, which tied a program record for most 3-pointers in a half. He added another in the second half to make it 6-6 on 3-point shooting for the night. Kalscheur totaled 21 points.
"He was terrific," Pitino told the media. "He was really good. He's going to be a really good player."
Kalscheur's 3-point shooting grabbed momentum back for the Gophers. He connected from downtown three times during a 18-4 run, which put the Gophers in command. They continued to hold Rutgers at arm's length, taking a 35-28 advantage into halftime.
Minnesota's other starting freshman, Daniel Oturu, had a strong game of his own. With Rutgers focusing so hard on defending Murphy, Oturu was able to gain positioning near the rim, allowing him to find plenty of quality looks. Oturu matched a career-high with 20 points and added eight rebounds.
"He did a lot of great things at the basket," Pitino told the media. "He made his free throws. For a big guy to make some crucial free throws was huge. He was competitive and physical."
Rutgers replicated the beginning of the first half in the second, going on a 20-10 run in the first 12 minutes to take the lead back. Kalscheur picked up his third foul shortly after halftime, and without him Minnesota couldn't connect on outside shots or defend the perimeter.
The game remained close with the teams trading the lead back and forth. The Gophers were ahead by five points with 4:47 remaining, but Rutgers made more plays down the stretch.
With 1:00 remaining, Rutgers sophomore Geo Baker hit a 3-pointer to break a tie and gave Rutgers the decisive lead. With four seconds to go, Rutgers fouled Murphy shooting a 3-pointer. With a chance to force overtime from the line, Murphy only made one foul shot, including an airball on the first attempt.
"He just missed the free throws," Pitino told the media.
The Gophers will hit the road once again on Thursday, traveling to Evanston, Illinois to play Northwestern.