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Gophers smothered by Northwestern 90-66 in final game of regular season

EVANSTON, ILL. – There was a point this season when Ben Johnson thought his Gophers men's basketball team definitely belonged in the NCAA tournament conversation.

The signature victories were lacking, but the Gophers passed the eye test.

They played with edge. They played with confidence. They played everyone tough.

That team clearly has gone missing. Look no further than the direction the Gophers are going after Saturday's 90-66 loss to end the regular season against Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Dawson Garcia finished with his third 30-point game of the season to lead the Gophers, but the momentum was entirely in Northwestern's favor from the opening tip.

"We have to take a long look at what we're doing," Johnson said. "We've got to really self reflect and figure out what we have to do better, especially when it's in the second half and winning time."

The Gophers (18-13, 9-11 Big Ten) have now suffered losses in six of the last nine games, including five consecutive road losses. They went from a possible double-bye in next week's Big Ten tournament in Minneapolis earlier this month to limping into the ninth or 10th seed.

The Wildcats (21-10, 12-8) looked the part of an NCAA tournament team even without senior starters Ty Berry (knee) and Matt Nicholson (foot), who were both honored on Senior Night.

Garcia already had 12 points in the game following a three-pointer to pull within 17-15 with 12 minutes, 24 seconds left in the first half, but Northwestern surged ahead with a 27-14 run.

Brooks Barnhizer, Ryan Langborg and Boo Buie combined for six of the seven three-pointers in the first half for the Wildcats, who took a 53-41 halftime lead after shooting 70% from the field.

"It just came down to defense," Garcia said. "We've proven that. It just comes down to really locking in on every practice and staying the course throughout games."

Defense helped the Gophers win three straight games in the middle of the Big Ten season, including 75-66 vs. Northwestern on Feb. 3 in Minneapolis. The Cats were held to 38% shooting that night and committed 17 turnovers.

Another stellar defensive effort came for the Gophers in a 59-56 victory against Michigan State at home on Feb. 6, but since then, their opponents combined to shoot 50% from the field in five losses before Saturday.

Garcia converted a three-point play finishing a layup plus the foul to make it 71-58 midway through the second half. Pharrel Payne's big block helped the Gophers force 10 straight missed shots by the Cats, who were scoreless from the field for nearly six minutes.

Braeden Carrington, who returned from a concussion after missing two games, drilled a shot from beyond the arc to shrink the deficit to 72-61 with 6:52 to play. But Barnhizer finally ended Northwestern's drought with three to end Minnesota's comeback hopes.

Barnhizer and Buie tied with a team-high 23 points for Northwestern, which shot 59% from the field in the game, including 10-for-18 from three.

Elijah Hawkins finished with 14 points and 10 assists, but no player other than Garcia scored in double figures. Fellow starters Payne, Mike Mitchell Jr. and Cam Christie combined for just 10 points on 3-for-14 shooting from the field.

The Gophers, who had a NET ranking at No. 82 entering the night, finished the regular season with a 1-8 record in Quad 1 games. The biggest chance to boost their NCAA tournament résumé was with Big Ten road victories, but they lost five straight Quad 1 opportunities away from home, including Nebraska and Northwestern by double digits.

Johnson still led the Gophers to seven more conference victories than last season and their best Big Ten finish since 2018-19. They're hoping to turn things around with a run in the Big Ten tournament and most likely the NIT.