Running out of opportunities and losing ground in the Big Ten standings, Minnesota needed to defend its home court on Wednesday against Indiana to get back on track in the quest for a NCAA Tournament bid.
The Gophers dropped their fifth contest in six games as a poor shooting performance was too much for Minnesota (12-13, 6-9 Big Ten) to overcome in a 68-56 loss to Indiana (17-9, 7-8 Big Ten). A promising start to the game proved unsustainable as the Gophers ended 21-61 on field goals, dropping a crucial game to another team on the bubble.
"We didn't make any shots," said head coach Richard Pitino. "We couldn't grasp the fact that we had to drive the ball but that had to do with [Indiana's] defense as well, so give them credit."
Whatever plagued the Gophers' offense during a scoreless final 5:25 minutes in a 58-55 loss to Iowa on Sunday did not carry over to the beginning of Wednesday night's contest. Minnesota made 8-9 field goals to start the game on its way to opening up with a 23-13 lead. Redshirt junior Payton Willis spearheaded the early scoring with nine points in the first 6:10 of the game.
The efficient shooting start did not last too much longer for the Gophers. After taking the 10-point advantage, Minnesota endured a six minute field goal drought that saw its lead shrink to one possession. Despite scoring only eight points in the final 11 minutes of the period, the Gophers held on to a 31-28 edge at halftime.
"I don't know what it was," Willis said. "I have to watch the film, but we didn't get too many open looks after the first few minutes."
Intermission failed to rejuvenate Minnesota's scoring as the Gophers came out flat to begin the second period. Indiana promptly tied the contest and then took its first lead in 20 minutes of game time. It was only the second time the Hoosiers pulled ahead and the first time since an early 9-8 margin.
A jumper from Willis briefly gave Minnesota a one-point edge but Indiana responded with a 7-0 run to build its largest lead of the evening to that point, 44-38. The Gophers' shooting to start the second half was in stark contrast to the first, opening the period 5-18 from the floor. Minnesota struggled from the perimeter, especially sophomore Gabe Kalscheur who ended the night 1-9 on 3-pointers.
"I'm shocked that Gabe goes 1-9," Pitino said. "And I thought he had some good looks. Payton is also a good 3-point shooter, so it's hard when you're missing that many shots."
Perhaps fittingly, another extended shooting slump came late in the second half for the Gophers as Indiana pulled away. In the game's final seven minutes, Minnesota only converted one field goal. After starting 8-9, the Gophers made 12-52 field goals to end the game. They struggled to score in all facets, making 4-25 threes and 10-19 free throws.
"We're missing some big [free throws]," Pitino said. "Leaving nine points on the line is too much."
Three players accounted for the majority of Minnesota's scoring. Willis and redshirt sophomore Marcus Carr both scored 12 points to lead the team. Sophomore Daniel Oturu scored 11 points and added 14 rebounds, although Pitino acknowledged that Indiana did a good job defending him.
"He missed some shots at the basket," Pitino said of Oturu. "He was trying to get to the rim. They blocked some good shots, rotated over and made it hard on him.
Freshman Trayce Jackson-Davis propelled Indiana to victory, posting a game-high 27 points and 16 rebounds. Senior Devonte Green was the only other Hoosier in double-figure scoring with 11 points.
With Minnesota now 12th in the Big Ten standings, the next chance to bounce back comes Sunday against Northwestern who is in last place at 1-14 in conference play. The Gophers' next home contest will come against the Big Ten leader, No. 7 Maryland on Feb. 26.
"We're still playing," Willis said. "We win five in a row we're back in the mix. We just have to take it game by game."