MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota coach Tubby Smith sat glumly in his chair on the raised Williams Arena floor, hunched over for much of the game while the Gophers stumbled to their 21st loss in their last 27 Big Ten games.
The difference this time was that they were out of tune from the start. There was no late blown lead on this afternoon.
Christian Watford rediscovered his shooting stroke with 12 points for 23rd-ranked Indiana, and the Hoosiers blew out sputtering Minnesota 69-50 on Sunday.
Victor Oladiopo and Jordan Hulls each scored 12 points themselves, and Verdell Jones III added 11 points off the bench for Indiana (22-7, 9-7 Big Ten), which held the Gophers to a season-low score and went 21 for 25 at the free-throw line.
Austin Hollins had 14 points for the Gophers (17-12, 5-11), who lost their fifth straight game. This was the lowest score against the Hoosiers in a conference game this season. They gave up 54 points to Penn State last month.
“We played some tough games and some good games. This is one that kind of just came out of nowhere,” Smith said.
Senior Ralph Sampson III went 1 for 11 from the field, his worst career shooting performance in any game with five or more attempts. The Gophers finished 18 for 58 from the floor, by far their worst percentage — 31 — of the season.
The Gophers won 77-74 at Assembly Hall when the Hoosiers were seventh in the Associated Press poll six weeks ago, a potentially season-changing victory. But after wasting prime opportunities to match that win in close home losses this month to ranked opponents Wisconsin and Michigan State, Minnesota entered the weekend badly needing a victory to even stay near the NCAA tournament bubble. The Gophers played poorly enough to make it burst.
They carried the body language of a defeated team, failing to secure the ball in crowds or get to the loose ones quickly enough. They didn’t get back on defense or cut off the back-door cuts consistently. Rodney Williams winced routinely when he held his hand up in the post and didn’t get the ball; he didn’t attempt a single shot in the first half and finished with three points.
Smith was upset that he didn’t look to score more and said he wasn’t mentally engaged, suggesting he’s discouraged and “probably a little beat up” from a season-long pounding in the post with the absence of star Trevor Mbakwe.
“You’ve got to earn your respect by playing hard all the time,” Smith said.
Oladipo’s sound defense in the post on Williams in the second half was one of the most important pieces of this victory.
“You’ve got to have a body on Rodney Williams. He’s going to be about the best athlete in any gym he walks into. Ever,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said.
Just like Michigan State coach Tom Izzo four days before, after the Gophers let a nine-point second-half lead disintegrate into defeat during a flurry of late turnovers, Crean went out of his way without prompting to praise Minnesota’s athleticism and toughness and express sympathy for the loss of Mbakwe.
Crean coached Mbakwe his freshman year at Marquette. With the Hoosiers, he’s had to adjust three times to the injury absence of standout Maurice Creek.
“I think people forget how hard it is,” Crean said, adding: “You’re taking a first-round player in talent, but more importantly just a fierce, fierce competitor and one of the toughest matchups in the country, out of the lineup.”
Andre Hollins started at point guard for Julian Welch, who was hindered by a hip pointer and played sparingly. The other point guard, Maverick Ahanmisi, was bothered by a sprained ankle and was also a nonfactor.
“It hurts when anybody gets hurt or they’re not themselves. So we’ve got to fight through that,” Austin Hollins said.
This was an Indiana team ranked 10th in the Big Ten in points allowed per game that they scored 77 against last month.
“That’s what happens when you don’t come to play. You get beat,” said reserve guard Chip Armelin, who had five points and seven rebounds. Armelin added: “We start messing up and stuff like that, you know, you start blaming each other for our mistakes or whatever. But we just need to pull together and keep our spirits up.”
Smith didn’t seem sure about how to do that. He said he decided against bringing a sports psychologist in to help. He also said he was trying to be careful not to be too critical or get in their faces too much. But these Gophers have become a very fragile team.
“We didn’t have that sense of urgency,” Smith said, “or they weren’t really inspired by what I said.”
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