Lack of intensity annoys Johnson in Gophers loss to Nebraska

LINCOLN, NEB. – Ben Johnson didn't like the intensity he saw from his Gophers men's basketball team just about from start to finish Sunday at Nebraska in a game that mattered for postseason contention.

Both teams were supposed to be playing for an NCAA tournament berth, but the Gophers suffered their worst margin of defeat in Big Ten play this season in a 73-55 loss.

"That's what a possessed team looks like and feels like," Johnson said of the Cornhuskers. "Not that we didn't want to win, but there are levels. They rose to a different level."

The Gophers (17-10, 8-8 Big Ten) have never won at Nebraska's Pinnacle Bank Arena since it opened in 2013, but they also hadn't been blown out this badly since a 25-point road loss to the Huskers in 2016.

What's the difference between now and then? The last Minnesota team embarrassed like that in Lincoln only won eight games, including two in the Big Ten. Sound familiar? That also happened last year.

This Minnesota team, though, still has a lot left to play for after a major turnaround from a year ago.

Parker Fox told his teammates in the huddle with the score out of reach late Sunday they need to remember the feeling going into another important game Wednesday at No. 13 Illinois.

"In the last media timeout, I told the guys let this be motivation for Illinois," Fox said. "We just can't be outhustled and [outplayed in toughness]. We have to pride ourselves in doing that to other teams."

The first half set the tone for how much of a struggle it would be for the Gophers offensively when they shot 28% from the field, including 1-for-11 on three-pointers. They still trailed Nebraska only 28-20 at the break behind Fox's eight points and six rebounds.

"The first half was relatively close, but I still didn't feel like the physicality was anywhere close to even," Johnson said.

The Huskers shot just 39% from the field, but they held the Gophers to 31% shooting on the night. That was Minnesota's lowest field goal percentage since shooting 29% in a loss to Mississippi State on Dec. 11, 2022.

The Big Ten's second-best assists team went from averaging 18 to just six on Sunday, the Gophers' fewest in a game since having six in a 70-45 loss at Ohio State on Feb. 15, 2022.

Big Ten basketball standings

This was a Minnesota squad that shot 17-for-28 combined from three in the first half to lead at halftime in the previous two road games at Iowa and Purdue. This was a group that scored 88 points in Thursday's victory over Ohio State, the Gophers' most in a regulation Big Ten game since 2019-20.

Not being able to establish an inside presence compounded the scoring issues. Nebraska's Josiah Allick and Rienk Mast shut down Dawson Garcia (10 points, 2-for-6 shooting) and Pharrel Payne (three points, 1-for-6 shooting) in the frontcourt matchup.

Elijah Hawkins, Mike Mitchell Jr. and Cam Christie all entered the game shooting 37% or better from three-point range, but they were a combined 4-for-18 from distance.

"With their defensive presence in the second half, we couldn't get the ball in the post like we wanted to and worked on," Johnson said. "We ended up settling for probably too many jumpers."

Johnson's team has still been the biggest surprise in the Big Ten. The NCAA tourney being a goal with March approaching is impressive for the Gophers, who were 1-15 in the Big Ten at this point a year ago.

The good news is the Gophers have two more Quad 1 opportunities to boost their résumé, at Illinois and at Northwestern to end the regular season.

"We're a resilient team," said Cam Christie, who had a team-high 14 points. "We're going to watch the film and bounce back and find a way to get better."