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Gophers free-throw shooting haunts in close loss to Wisconsin

For all the frenetic scoring runs and responses in the rivalry game between the Gophers and Badgers on Tuesday, it came down to the most static facet of Big Ten basketball: free-throw shooting.

No. 13 Wisconsin made their foul shots, while Minnesota didn’t in a 61-59 loss on Tuesday night at Williams Arena.

Minnesota (12-7, 3-5) has dropped yet another close game to Wisconsin, making it five straight defeats by less than six points or fewer.

The Badgers (15-4, 7-1), a 2.5-point favorite, made 8 of 10 (80%) from the stripe; Minnesota made only 5 of 13 (38%) from the line. Coming into the game, Gophers ranked 13 out 14 Big Ten teams in free-throw shooting at 66 percent.

Gophers coach Ben Johnson ticked through reasons why they were in the game late: fewer turnovers, a narrow rebounding margin, high amount of defensive stops and better shooting in the second half.

However …

“As a group, it’s never on one person, but the amount of free throws that we shoot, we just got to be confident at the line now,” Johnson said. “That’s the next step.”

Dawson Garcia missed a free throw after a technical foul with a minute remaining.

Braeden Carrington grabbed a crucial offensive rebound with 34 seconds left, but made one of two free throws to take a 58-57 lead.

A.J. Storr, a Badgers transfer from St. John’s, made both of his free throws to retake the lead 59-58 with 26 seconds remaining.

And Tyler Wahl of Lakeville made both his free throws with five seconds left. Wahl finished with 16 points and Storr added 15.

Mike Mitchell was fouled with four seconds left. He made the first foul shot, intentionally missed the second, got the rebound but couldn’t connect from roughly 10 feet on the baseline.

“We have a set play and have practiced that and worked on it,” Johnson said. “Couldn’t have got a better (free-throw) miss from Mike. Again, sometimes you have to live with the results. I thought he had a great shot. That is what it is.”

Gophers starting point guard Elijah Hawkins returned from a one-game absence due to an ankle injury. He led Minnesota with 16 points, with 13 in the second half, and nine assists.

Minnesota made its opening six 3-pointers of the second half to take their first lead since early in the first half at 46-45.

Wisconsin responded with a 9-0 run to make it 54-46 and the U had its own 7-0 spirt to make it 54-53. It remained close the rest of the way.

Pharrel Payne labored through his reoccurring back injury, but contributed nine points and seven rebounds.

The Gophers’ awful shooting in the first half put them down 10 points at the break. Minnesota shot 31% from the field and 21% from 3-point range.

In the first half, the U settled for too many 3-pointers and long mid-range shots, with its starting back court — Hawkins, Mitchell and Cam Christie — combining to shoot 2 of 15 from the field in the first half.

“There were definitely some possessions that were kind of wasted, in the first half for sure,” Carrington said. “We were rushing shots, early 3s in the offense. We got to clean that up. A better first-half start because we can’t get down 10 to a top-15 team.”

The Gophers’ five straight close losses to the Badgers have been by a combined 16 points.

“We are more than right there,” Johnson said of the rivalry. “But we’ve got to do our job and stamp it, finish it.”

Outside of the Big Ten tournament in March, the U will have to wait until next year to again face the Badgers.

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