Minnesota was expected to reach the title game of the 76 Classic. Instead, the Golden Gophers’ status as a Top 25 team may be on the line Sunday when they meet Texas A&M for the first time in nearly 30 years.
The No. 22 Golden Gophers (4-1) opened this tournament in Anaheim, Calif., in strong fashion Thursday, beating 12th-ranked Butler 82-73. However, they turned in their worst performance of the season the following day, losing 61-56 to Portland in the semifinals.
Minnesota shot 33.3 percent while making 3 of 19 from beyond the arc en route to its lowest scoring output of the season. That came after the team averaged 81.8 points on 50.2 percent shooting - 41.5 from 3-point range - to win its previous four games.
“Portland did a pretty good job of keeping us off balance,” coach Tubby Smith said. “We took some poor shots and we did that for a few games and got away with it and those things will catch up with you. We had some good looks and they just didn’t drop. The shot selection wasn’t a good night.”
So instead of facing eighth-ranked West Virginia in the 76 Classic championship game, the Golden Gophers try to salvage a third-place finish against Texas A&M (4-1). Minnesota won the only previous meeting Dec. 29, 1979.
A loss for the Gophers could see them tumble out of the rankings for the first time this season.
Guard Lawrence Westbrook might still be feeling the effects of a stomach virus that sidelined him for a 76-51 win over Utah Valley on Nov. 19.
Westbrook, who leads the team with 14.3 points per game, returned from the illness Thursday but had a season-low nine points. The senior wasn’t much better against Portland, scoring 11 points on 4-for-13 shooting - 1-for-5 from 3-point range.
Westbrook led Minnesota in scoring last season, averaging 12.6 points.
The Aggies are playing their third consecutive game against a ranked opponent.
They won the first one, advancing to the semifinals with Thursday’s 69-60 win over No. 19 Clemson, ending the Tigers’ 30-game winning streak in November.
Texas A&M appeared to be on its way to another upset the next day, leading West Virginia by two at halftime, but lost 73-66.
“We couldn’t guard them or stop their shots in the second half,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “We didn’t have any success with our secondary break or motion. Their half-court defense really made the difference and you have to give them credit for that.”
Donald Sloan is looking to build on his 18-point performance against the Mountaineers after being held to a season-low nine Thursday. The senior guard leads the Aggies with 17.4 points per game, nearly six more than his average from last season.