Free throws plague Gophers in Maryland loss

- Richard Pitino isn’t hitting the panic button any time soon. After all, it’s early January.

There are going to be nights where the Gophers don’t shoot well, where they don’t execute on offense and where they’re not great defensively. It’s an unfortunate combination when all three happen on the same night.

What makes Tuesday’s 82-67 loss to Maryland, dropping Minnesota to 2-2 in Big Ten play, so disappointing is that it came after the Gophers broke an eight-game losing streak to Wisconsin. They also won at Madison for the first time since 2009.

The Gophers shot 42 percent from the field in Tuesday’s loss, their first at Williams Arena this season, but it was their free-throw shooting that was the biggest story from the game. The Gophers shot just 39 percent (9-of-23) from the charity stripe. Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy, two of Minnesota's top scorers, went a combined 6-of-17.

“I just thought offensively when you shoot 39 percent from the free-throw line, you better be really, really good at the other things. You better play intelligently, you better play terrific defense, you better offensively execute. We didn’t do any of those, and we still had a chance to win the game,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “But if you don’t do the little things when you’re going cold, you’ve got no chance.”

The big problem with that number is the Gophers get to the free throw line a lot. They’re second in the Big Ten at both free throws attempted (27.4) and free throws made (18.1) per game to Iowa. They're 287th nationally, shooting 65.9 percent from the free-throw line.

Coming off a big win at Wisconsin, the Gophers had an opportunity to get and stay near the top of the Big Ten through the first half of the schedule. The next three games are hosting Rutgers Saturday, at Illinois Jan. 16 and hosting Penn State Jan. 19. The three teams are a combined 0-11 in the Big Ten as of Tuesday night.

If Minnesota wins all three, it would be 15-3 overall and 5-2 in league play.

They’ll need to find the identity they had at Wisconsin to get there. The Gophers won in Madison with one of the best defensive efforts they’ve ever had in Pitino’s era. They limited the Badgers to 23 percent shooting in the first half, 41 percent for the game and just 14 percent (2-of-14) from three-point range.

The Gophers also forced star forward Ethan Happ to go to the free-throw line, his biggest weakness. He finished the game 1-of-7 and missed several late.

“I think we see that when we execute, when we play intelligently, we’re a good team. When we deviate from that like we did against Maryland, we’re not going to win a lot of games playing that way,” Pitino said.

Against Maryland, the Gophers led 40-34 at half and limited the Terrapins to 40 percent shooting in the opening 20 minutes.

It was a completely different story in the second half. The Terrapins shot 16-of-23 from the field, including 6-of-7 from the perimeter. The Gophers led 54-47 with 14:28 left, and Maryland went on a 22-7 run to take a 69-61 lead it wouldn’t give back.

Maryland guard Anthony Cowan scored 23 of his 27 points in the second half. Jalen Smith added 21 points and eight rebounds.

The reality is this: The Gophers are still in very good shape with just three losses on the season, and three very winnable games coming up. The other losses were at Boston College in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, their first true road game of the season, and at Ohio State. It was their Big Ten opener, on the road less than 48 hours after beating Oklahoma at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The Gophers have shown at times they can play with virtually any team in the country. They’ve also shown gone long stretches without scoring and have had issues with turnovers. It’s still early, and the season can go in any direction.

“The problem with our losses is that we have not played well in our losses. As a coach, you just want to play well and then see where you stand. All three of our losses, it’s been really, really ugly,” Pitino said.

The ugly performance can be forgotten with a win over Rutgers Saturday. But the margin for error got slimmer after Tuesday’s loss to Maryland. It’s hard enough to win on the road in the Big Ten that defending your home court is a must.

"I know where we’re at, what we do well and what we haven’t done well and where we need to improve. Our whole focus is on the next game," Pitino said.

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