No. 17 Wisconsin escapes from Gophers in overtime

MINNEAPOLIS--On an afternoon in which the Gophers hoped to gain respect and bolster their NCAA tournament r?sum?, their offense eroded late and their usually reliable defense had no answer for Wisconsin's talented post players.

Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Nate Mason (2) drives to the basket against Wisconsin Badgers forward Ethan Happ (22) during overtime at Williams Arena. Wisconsin defeated Minnesota 78-76. Photo by Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS-On an afternoon in which the Gophers hoped to gain respect and bolster their NCAA tournament résumé, their offense eroded late and their usually reliable defense had no answer for Wisconsin's talented post players.

So instead of a season-boosting upset, a matinee border battle with potential to yield a significant victory left only another frustrating overtime loss, a 78-76 defeat Saturday at Williams Arena.

No. 17-ranked Wisconsin stretched its winning streak in the rivalry to six games.

"Obviously that was a tough one," Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. "But it was a great college basketball game. I normally don't enjoy coaching during the game. But I enjoyed that one."

The Gophers (15-5, 3-4 Big Ten) did well to force overtime in a game in which two of their captains struggled mightily. That might have made for a moral victory a season ago, when Minnesota was mired in one of its worst campaigns ever.


But this season, expectations have been raised and an NCAA tournament appearance is their publicly stated goal, which makes a loss like Saturday's, even if in overtime to a ranked opponent, frustrating. The Gophers have now lost three straight games after opening conference play 3-1.

"If you don't see where this team can go, you're probably not paying attention," Pitino said.

Junior captain Nate Mason shot 3 of 14 from the field, sophomore captain Jordan Murphy mustered only four points and one rebound and the Gophers watched as Badgers big man Ethan Happ controlled as few players can, finishing with a career-high 28 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and five blocks. His performance improved the Badgers to 16-4 and 5-1 in the Big Ten in front of Williams Arena's first sellout in nearly two years, albeit one that included patches of red-clad fans.

Happ collapsed onto the hardwood at the Barn at the final buzzer after watching Akeem Springs' buzzer-beating bid clank off the rim.

"That was a mix of happiness and exhaustion," Happ said.

With Mason and Murphy struggling, the Gophers' offense was limited to mostly just Springs (19 points) and freshman Amir Coffey (16 points), which made it all the more difficult considering the Gophers rarely got the defensive stand they needed late.

"The basketball gods just didn't want them to shoot well this game, I guess," Springs said of Mason and Murphy. "I'm not worried about either one of them. They'll bounce back."

The teams traded blows throughout a thrilling second half, matching each other on nearly every possession. Neither team led by more than five points in a game that featured 16 lead changes and 18 ties, none more critical than the one the Gophers yielded with Springs' overtime-forcing three-pointer with 11 seconds left.


But in the extra session, Badgers guard Bronson Koenig hit a three-pointer with 44 seconds remaining off a set play that erased a two-point Gophers lead.

"They just made one more big play than we did," Coffey said.

The Gophers' main culprit, though, wasn't on offense, where they had been anemic in their two most recent losses. Instead, the fault this time fell on a low-post defense that failed to contain Happ and Nigel Hayes, who scored 21 points.

Whenever the Badgers needed a basket, they turned to one of those two, and they rarely disappointed.

Wisconsin outscored the Gophers 44-24 in the paint.

Still, Pitino was optimistic after a third straight loss, pointing to improvement offensively and an ability to force overtime against a Wisconsin team that is among the favorites to win the Big Ten.

Springs, he said, was especially impressive, leading the team in points in just his second career start with Minnesota.

"They need to be positive," Pitino said. "I don't see a whole lot of negatives to look at from tonight beside the fact that we lost. They should feel like we can be a real good team in this league and we can only get better."

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