Gophers slipping off NIT bubble with quick exit in Big Ten tournament

Ben Johnson’s postgame news conference held an air of finality on Thursday.

After the Gophers’ quick exit from the Big Ten tournament in a 77-67 loss to Michigan State at Target Center, Johnson was asked an end-of-season, bigger-picture question on player development since November.

“Really excited to get going in the offseason with those guys,” Johnson replied. “Again, hopefully, we have more basketball ahead of us (this year).”

But Minnesota’s postseason play might be done, as well.

The Gophers’ long-shot chance of making the NCAA Tournament — which needed a conference tournament championship — never got off the ground this week, and the U’s possible NIT berth was on the bubble even before Thursday’s tipoff.

Two of the three projections reviewed by the Pioneer Press had the Gophers on the outside looking in; one had them in the field. One Gopher official pegged the U’s NIT chances at 50-50. Their fate will be finalized with Sunday’s selections and will come down to which Big Ten teams go to NCAA Tournament and others who get the Big Ten’s automatic NIT bids.

On Thursday, the ninth-seeded Gophers (18-14) led the eighth-seeded Spartans 34-32 at the half, but Minnesota’s defense issues, which were the biggest culprit in losing six of its final nine regular season games, resurfaced in Thursday’s second half as they gave up 45 points. The Gophers led 49-44 with 12 minutes left, but offensive turnovers and defensive miscues contributed to Michigan State going in a 25-10 burst.

“I think for us finding ways to be more consistent throughout the 40 minutes, especially these last three games, we couldn’t really do that,” said Johnson in including losses to Indiana and Northwestern. “That’s going to be the point of emphasis from here moving forward now that we’ve got a core group, guys that are back. Now they totally understand what I mean when I say that. Again, sometimes you’ve got to go through it to fully feel it and believe it, and now it’s proof. So it’s something to build on.”

Gophers big men Parker Fox and Pharrel Payne got into foul trouble early in the second half. When Payne came back, he was at the center of one of the oddest plays. He dunked an alley-oop and the ball went into the cylinder, but it popped out before going through the net. No basket.

Then Spartans guard Tre Holloman, a Cretin-Derham Hall graduate, immediately hit a 3-pointer for a 55-51 lead. Holloman finished with nine points and was the player who was picked to slap the Michigan State sticker on the official tournament bracket postgame. The Spartans (19-13) will play top-seed Purdue (28-3) at 11 a.m. Friday in the quarterfinal round.

The Spartans, a 6.5-point favorites against Minnesota, were led A.J. Hoggard’s 17 points. Tyson Walker added 15 points after putting up 21 and 20 in the first two games against the Gophers. Dawson Garcia led all scorers with 19.

Despite the 11 a.m. tipoff, the Gophers started strong, taking a 7-0 lead and later had a 11-0 run that got the lead back up to 21-14. The pro-Gopher crowd helped the U start strong.

Parker Fox grew up in Mahtimedi and said he hadn’t played at Target Center since he was in the third grade. “It was a fun atmosphere,” he said. “… To be able to go back out there and play there again was pretty special. “Unfortunately, it didn’t go the way we wanted it to go, but I’m proud of the way we fought and proud of the way that our fans brought energy to help us.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t go the way we wanted it to go,” Fox added. “But I’m proud of the way we fought and proud of the way that our fans brought energy to help us.”

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