Ben Johnson never really established a team identity in his first two seasons as the Gophers men's basketball coach, but there was a stat that stood out heavily in his favor.
The Gophers were 19-1 when they led with five minutes left in the game, including 11-0 in Johnson's first season in 2021-22.
In Thursday's demoralizing 70-68 loss against Missouri, Johnson's team led all the way until 9.9 seconds remained. The Gophers impressively built a 20-point second-half lead, but the same new fast-paced style that got them there helped fuel the comeback of their stingy SEC opponent.
Johnson's Gophers (2-1) like playing fast, but they might be dealing with an identity crisis while trying to bounce back Saturday against South Carolina-Upstate. The Gophers want to play up-tempo but have to wonder if that can hold up against better competition.
"I think we can do it," sophomore Braeden Carrington said. "We definitely have shown we can do it in stretches. We just have to learn when we go from slow to fast to take care of the ball. That's really what killed us at the end of the day."
In close games where the margin of error is slim, a team's mistakes are amplified.
The Gophers appeared to back off Johnson's downhill attacking style late Thursday. They finished with 16 turnovers, but they also went scoreless from the field in the last six minutes. Can they score without playing fast for 40 minutes?
"As a staff we have to look at the film and see what I can do better to help these guys out," Johnson said. "What did we do to kind of let it snowball? Was it something we ran or didn't run?"
Elijah Hawkins, the team's starting point guard, was benched after his fourth turnover and sat the last 3 minutes and 15 seconds. The offense appeared more stagnant without him.
Hawkins, who finished with eight points and six assists, had been a big part of how the Gophers scored 39 fast-break points combined in their first two games, including 24 in last week's 102-76 win vs. Texas San Antonio.
Johnson didn't give any specific reason for sitting his speedy 5-11 floor leader other than he liked the 6-6 freshman Cam Christie's matchup. After an 18-point debut last week, Christie went 0-for-4 from the field, which included missing two three-point attempts in the last 21 seconds. But the Gophers have a lot of confidence in their talented young guard.
"I trust Cam to hit that shot," said Dawson Garcia, who led the Gophers with 16 points and nine rebounds. "I've seen him hit that in practice all of the time. He got a good look at it. He's going to bounce back."
Last season, the Gophers were atrocious at the foul line with the worst percentage (61.9) in the country, but they're second in the Big Ten at 78% on free throws through three games. They rank fourth in three-point percentage (39.1) and fifth in field goal percentage (49.1). But the Gophers also are tied with Penn State for the most turnovers per game (14.7) among Big Ten teams.
After being outscored 31-9 by Missouri to end the game, Johnson said his team needs to rely more on defense to win.
But what happened in crunch time that led to such a monumental collapse offensively against Missouri? Other than Hawkins sitting, the Gophers also had talented big man Pharrel Payne on the bench for the final 5:14.
Payne missed last week's UTSA win with a foot injury, but he returned to have 10 points and three blocks in 14 minutes Thursday.
The 6-9, 255-pound Payne and 6-11 Garcia were billed as one of the Big Ten's top frontcourt duos entering the season. But the Gophers have also proven they can score well in transition. Now it might be about how to balance those two identities moving forward.
"Pharrel's a monster in there, so you want to get the ball to him," Carrington said. "When Dawson's inside you want to get it to him, too. But also, with Elijah in there you want to run because he's going to [find] someone open. It really just comes down to taking care of the ball."