On Wednesday night, Minnesota had one last opportunity to save their chances of an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers saw that bubble burst as a last-second 3-pointer handed them a heart-breaking defeat.
Minnesota (13-14, 7-10 Big Ten) led No. 9 Maryland (23-5, 13-4 Big Ten) by as many as 17 points. However, despite leading for over 39 minutes of play, the Gophers found themselves behind 74-73 at the final buzzer.
"That was as difficult of a game as I've been a part of," said head coach Richard Pitino. "We did so many good things in the first half. We just missed some really crucial free throws in the second half, gave up some offensive rebounds and they hit a tough shot at the end."
Within the game's first minute senior Alihan Demir picked up a pair of fouls, sending him to the bench. With Demir sidelined, freshman Isaiah Ihnen checked in, providing Minnesota with an offensive spark. Ihnen surpassed his previous career-high of seven points within six minutes on the court, knocking down three 3-pointers in rapid succession.
It was not just Ihnen who found success from behind the arc in the opening minutes. Redshirt sophomore Marcus Carr hit a pair of threes and sophomore Daniel Oturu added one of his own as Minnesota started the game 7-8 from the field.
Oturu, Carr and Ihnen carried the Gophers' scoring load in the first half, combining for 39 points as the Gophers built a 16-point lead at the game's halfway point. The 47 points were the second-highest first-half total for Minnesota all season, behind only a 82-57 victory over Central Michigan on Nov. 21 when the Gophers scored 48.
Limited to four minutes played in the first half due to foul trouble, Maryland sophomore Jalen Smith began to show in the second half why he is one of the toughest big men in the country to guard. The Big Ten's leader in double-doubles helped the Terrapins trim the deficit, scoring 11 points in the first 12 minutes after intermission.
A 12-2 Maryland run, cut what was a 14-point lead down to 66-62 with under four minutes remaining. The Gophers built the lead back up to eight points with two minutes to go but Maryland scored seven of the game's next eight points.
"It just snowballed a little bit," Pitino said. "But that's on me, I need to get them more composed."
Two missed free throws in the final seconds opened the door for Maryland to steal the game. When the Terrapins had their chance trailing 73-71 with moments to go, junior Darryl Morsell connected on a 3-pointer with 1.9 seconds left to stun the Gophers.
After making 57.1% of their shots in the first half, the Gophers limped to the finish converting 10-29 attempts after halftime. Maryland also benefited from a dominant effort on the offensive glass.
"We just didn't finish possessions with rebounds," Pitino said. "They had 20 offensive rebounds and they were crucial."
The two star centers, Oturu and Smith, both delivered double-doubles. Oturu scored a game-high 28 points while coming down with 11 boards. Smith led the contest in rebounds with 12 and tied sophomore Aaron Wiggins as Maryland's leading scorer at 16 points.
For Maryland, five players scored in double-figures. Along with Smith and Wiggins, Morsell scored 13 points, freshman Donta Scott scored 11 and senior Anthony Cowan Jr. finished with 10. Scoring 19 points, Carr was the only Gopher beside Oturu in double-figures.
The defeat marks Minnesota's third consecutive at The Barn. In all three, the Gophers had a lead and seemed in control of the game before eventually coming up short.
"It's different levels of devastation." Pitino said. "It's been very difficult, we could have won all three of them. I feel for our guys, they're playing hard. I just have to get them back and get them positive again."
Now, Minnesota has two games on the road, at Wisconsin and at Indiana, before the regular season finale at home against Nebraska.