EVANSTON, ILL. – Coach Ben Johnson knew his Gophers men’s basketball team’s offense would have a tough time putting points on the scoreboard Saturday without leading scorer Dawson Garcia at Northwestern, so it was another area that was a big disappointment.
One of the Gophers’ worst defensive performances in Big Ten play compounded their scoring issues in an 81-61 loss Saturday afternoon against the Wildcats at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Jamison Battle led the way with 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting from the field for the Gophers (7-13, 1-9 Big Ten). But Garcia missed his second consecutive game while recovering from a bone bruise in his right foot suffered in a Jan. 22 loss at Michigan.
Chase Audige and Boo Buie combined for 45 points and 10 assists for the Wildcats (15-5, 6-3), who shot 52% from the field.
In Wednesday’s 61-57 loss vs. Indiana, Johnson was proud of his seven scholarship players battling the Hoosiers and playing well enough defensively to lead down the stretch. The opposite was the case Saturday with Northwestern leading 45-28 in the first half after shooting 55% from the field.
Freshman big man Pharrel Payne picked up his first career start Saturday after missing the previous game while on concussion protocol. Payne, a load at 6-9 and 255 pounds, showed some rust with four of the team’s 15 turnovers.
Battle scored his first basket of the game on a jumper for a 9-5 lead to open the game. Joshua Ola-Joseph finished down the lane with a floater for an 11-7 advantage, but that woke up Northwestern’s backcourt tandem.
Audige and Buie took control to help the Wildcats outscore the Gophers 31-8 in the first half. Audige had eight points during a decisive 11-0 run that turned the game in favor of the home squad.
Battle struggled to get open looks the entire game, but his three-pointer cut it 27-18 with 6:43 left. The Wildcats, who scored 13 points on 11 turnovers in the first half, got back-to-back steals from Buie on Ta’Lon Cooper that fueled a 9-0 run. Buie finished with 21 points and eight assists. Audige had 24 points to lead the Wildcats.
To make matters worse, the Gophers shot just 16-for-26 from the free throw line, which helped them maintain their rank as the worst foul shooting team in Division I.
The Gophers entered Saturday as the lowest scoring team in the Big Ten (62.2). It’s been an even bigger nightmare since their 70-67 win Jan. 12 at Ohio State. During a four-game losing streak, the U averaged just 53 points, including just 39 points vs. Purdue on Jan. 19.
A defensive identity is what Johnson hoped the Gophers would adopt in his second season. After holding the Hoosiers to 37% shooting Wednesday, Minnesota took a step back in Evanston.
In the second half, the Wildcats stretched their lead to 61-36 after a three-pointer from Audige on a late close out with the Gophers playing a 2-3 zone.
Garcia and freshman Braeden Carrington (leg injury) sidelined meant the Gophers were giving reserves more playing time, including sophomore Treyton Thompson, freshman Jaden Henley, and former walk-on Will Ramberg.
Effort wasn’t always the issue. Chemistry and communication were definitely missing on several defensive miscues. Following Cooper’s layup that made it a 17-point deficit late in the second half, Audige blew by his defender for an uncontested dunk in the halfcourt set.
The toughest stretch of Big Ten play continues with five of the next eight games on the road, including Wednesday at Rutgers.