Michigan steps up, Minnesota steps down
MINNEAPOLIS — Just before tipoff Thursday night, Michigan's Darius Morris grabbed teammate Manny Harris by the arm, looked him in the eye and repeated the mantra of desperate teams.
"We need this," Morris told Harris while clenching his fist.
After losing to the Wolverines, Minnesota employed a similar phrase.
"We needed this win," junior Blake Hoffarber said after the Gophers' critical 71-63 loss at Williams Arena.
In 40 minutes, the Wolverines ruined the Gophers' realistic NCAA tournament hopes, repeatedly exposed their growing weaknesses and added another chapter to this season's book of problems.
DeShawn Sims, Michigan's 6-8 forward, scored a game-high 27 points, mostly on simple layups that the Gophers failed to contest.
"He's physical, guys don't get around him," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said of his team's difficulty guarding Sims.
Harris' penetration off screens produced 20 points and opened up the lane for Sims' easy buckets.
As a team, the Wolverines (12-12, 5-7 Big Ten) shot 68 percent from the floor after halftime, when they led 27-26.
The Gophers' starting backcourt of Lawrence Westbrook and Devoe Joseph accounted for eight of the team's 15 turnovers, created in part by Michigan's 11 steals.
"Our team has been waiting to play that way for a while," Michigan coach John Beilein said.
Smith tried multiple player combinations -- short of pulling former Gophers Jamal Abu-Shamala and Ryan Saunders from the crowd -- to defend the Harris-Sims attack. But he couldn't find one who neutralized Michigan's robotic yet effective two-man offense.
The Gophers (14-9, 5-6) finished with three double-figure scorers, led by Hoffarber's 16 points, and shot a solid 45.5 percent from the floor. But they didn't have the defense to make that offense meaningful.
The Gophers led twice, both times in the first half. In the second half, they tied the score two times before the Wolverines launched a run and took a 64-53 lead with 3 minutes, 14 seconds to play.
The Gophers chipped away like a man trying to chop down a thick tree with a handsaw: commendable, but futile. They never moved closer than 66-60, after Joseph hit a free throw with 1:08 remaining.
And now, they have lost five of seven. Most NCAA tournament prognosticators had called their chances of an at-large berth slim, especially with losses to Portland and Indiana on their résumé. Thursday's loss, however, might be an insurmountable blow.
Sims was too strong for the Gophers, but that's why Smith signed Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe. Harris attacked off the dribble too easily, a much harder feat for opponents before Al Nolen's academic issues sidelined him, too.
"We bailed out on about four or five opportunities to take charges," Smith said while criticizing his team's lack of toughness.
After a couple of questionable foul calls in the second half, many in the announced sellout crowd of 14,625 turned their frustration toward the officials. But they pegged the wrong culprits.
At this point in the season, a team in the Gophers' position needs flawless execution that even questionable officiating won't disrupt. But Smith isn't sure he has the talent to pull out the kind of victories he will need to salvage what's left of the season.
"We haven't really stepped up in big games," Smith said before adding, "That's why you go out and recruit better players. And hopefully, we'll get that in the future."
MICHIGAN 71, MINNESOTA 63
Sims 12-18 2-4 27, Novak 2-5 1-1 6, Douglass 2-7 0-1 5, Harris 5-14 8-10 20, Morris 2-3 1-3 5, Wright 0-0 0-0 0, Vogrich 0-0 0-0 0, Lucas-Perry 0-2 0-0 0, Gibson 3-3 0-0 8. Totals 26-52 12-19 71.
Johnson 3-6 4-4 10, Sampson III 2-7 3-6 7, Joseph 1-5 2-4 4, Westbrook 3-7 0-0 7, Hoffarber 5-10 2-2 16, Carter 4-5 1-1 11, Allen 0-0 0-0 0, Cobbs 0-1 4-4 4, Bostick 0-0 0-2 0, Williams 1-2 0-0 2, Iverson 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 20-44 16-23 63.
Halftime_Michigan 27-26. 3-Point Goals_Michigan 7-14 (Gibson 2-2, Harris 2-4, Novak 1-1, Douglass 1-2, Sims 1-3, Lucas-Perry 0-1, Morris 0-1), Minnesota 7-17 (Hoffarber 4-8, Carter 2-2, Westbrook 1-2, Williams 0-1, Johnson 0-1, Joseph 0-3). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_Michigan 27 (Sims 7), Minnesota 33 (Johnson 7). Assists_Michigan 20 (Harris 7), Minnesota 14 (Cobbs, Joseph 3). Total Fouls_Michigan 21, Minnesota 19. A_14,625.