By Amelia Rayno, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) –
INDIANAPOLIS — In a way, it almost seemed fitting that the Minnesota Gophers would lose this way: in a close game, in overtime, and by missing just enough opportunities to fall just short.
After all, it’s been the Gophers’ greatest curse all season. They compete in almost every game, but they don’t win enough.
This final shot at redemption likely ended it, with the only postseason shot now a potential NIT berth, which would be determined on Sunday.
Minutes after falling in a heartbreaking overtime defeat, 73-69, to Michigan in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals, Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams — the pair that will likely play the role of leaders when the Gophers try to improve next season — walked silently down an empty hallway, a long, quiet road to face the questions they’ve faced so many times this year.
When it mattered, at the end, why couldn’t they get it done?
“We seriously had them beat — and we just let up,” said a pink-faced, eerily smile-less Hollins, who finished with 21 points, four rebounds and six assists. “This is going to be a tough one to swallow. We’ve had a lot of these this year. It’s just a hard one.”
Mostly because it’s the last one, but also because the Gophers felt truly on the verge of finally becoming the team they’ve tried to be all season.
“It reminds me of a lot of all the other games,” Elliott Eliason said. “But just being on the stage and what it meant, at this stage of the season, it really resonates. It hurts really, a lot more than the other ones because of that.”
The last three games, the Gophers have brought a level of energy and intensity the team hasn’t showed in an extended stretch all season. Despite watching Michigan’s Trey Burke light up the scoreboard with 11 shots and 30 points, the Gophers never let the Wolverines go on an overwhelming run. And in the final minutes and seconds, the fire and urgency was felt in every emotional face.
Still, the game was lost in a familiar way.
With 3:49 left in regulation, the Gophers had a nine-point lead after consecutive three-point baskets from Julian Welch and a ferocious, highlight-reel dunk by Williams (who finished with 20 points and five rebounds). But two turnovers and three missed shots in four attempts slowed the Gophers down, as Zack Novak connected on two three-pointers and Evan Smotrycz followed with a third to tie the score at 56.
The Gophers still got two looks to win, but couldn’t find the net on either. Williams’ literal last-second shot looked good, but hit just left of center and the junior pounded the court floor in frustration.
“I was upset,” Williams said. “Fate was in our hand and we just didn’t get it done.”
In overtime, things switched. Michigan got out to a seven-point lead before Andre Hollins hit a three-pointer and four free throws to pace the team and bring the deficit to two. But the Wolverines hit their final four free throws to make Williams’ dunk irrelevant and send the heartbroken Gophers trudging to their locker room, stunned once more.
“They had the momentum going their way heading into overtime,” Austin Hollins said. “We showed a lot of heart out there and we were playing really well, but they made big shots when they needed to, and that’s huge coming down the stretch.”
Through the cloud of immediate disappointment though, penetrates a sliver of sunlight. The Gopher appeared to show improvement in the postseason, and have been given a tiny preview of the kind of gem they just might have on their hands with Andre Hollins, who played like a patient veteran and future star.
And one who now knows the pain of coming up short at the next level. All the Gophers can hope for now, is to build on the year’s-worth of heartbreaks, and learn from the losses.
“We hope we play more,” Hollins said. “That’s the only thing we can do now.”