EVANSTON, ILL. – Coach Ben Johnson knew his offense would have a tough time putting points on the board Saturday without Gophers leading scorer Dawson Garcia at Northwestern, so it was another pitch that was a big disappointment.
One of the worst defensive performances in Big Ten play, coupled with turnover woes, resulted in the Gophers’ 81-61 loss Saturday afternoon against the Wildcats before an announced crowd of 6,064 at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“To give up 81 points and combine that with 15 turnovers, that’s not a recipe for success or giving yourself a chance,” Johnson said. “And not being able to come back and give the same competitive fight is disappointing.”
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 straight 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.
“I think the offense will find its way,” Johnson said. “I’m more disappointed with the defensive effort to give up 81. Credit to those guys. They played downhill and were aggressive.”
In Wednesday’s 61-57 loss against Indiana, Johnson was proud of his seven scholarship players battling the Hoosiers and playing well enough to advance. The opposite happened on Saturday with Northwestern leading 45-28 at halftime after shooting 55%.
Rookie big man Pharrel Payne made his first career start Saturday after missing the previous game while in the concussion protocol. Payne struggled to establish a presence inside with three pointers and four of the team’s 15 turnovers.
“I thought today for whatever reason even when we had the early lead, I didn’t feel the same,” Johnson said. “We can’t give in to the circumstances. We have to find a way to play with the same edge we did against Indiana.”
Battle scored his first basket of the game on a jumper for a 9-5 lead. Joshua Ola-Joseph finished in the lane with a floater for an 11-7 advantage, but that woke up Northwestern’s explosive backcourt.
Audige, who had a game-high 24 points, took control to help the Wildcats outscore the Gophers 31-8 at halftime. The senior guard had eight points during a decisive 11-0 run.
Battle tried to break open early, but his 3-pointer cut the deficit to 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 to Ta’Lon Cooper that sparked a 9-0 run. Buie finished with 21 points and eight assists.
The Gophers entered Saturday as the lowest scoring team in the Big Ten at 62.2 points per game. It’s been an even bigger nightmare since their 70-67 win on Jan. 12 at Ohio State. During the five-game losing streak, the U’s are averaging just 55 points.
To make matters worse this season, the Gophers are dead last in foul shots in Division I, holding up to that distinction by going 16-for-26 on Saturday.
A defensive identity is what the Gophers had to adopt in Johnson’s second season. After holding the Hoosiers to 37% shooting on Wednesday, Minnesota took a step back in Evanston.
“It’s just emphasizing the little things,” Battle said. “That’s what good teams do. They’re so involved in things that you don’t think matter, but they actually have a big impact. I think that’s where we need to step up.”
In the second half, the Wildcats extended their lead to 61-36 after a three by Audige in a late shutout with the Gophers playing a 2-3 split zone.
Effort wasn’t always the problem. Chemistry and communication were lacking. After Cooper’s layup cut the deficit to 17 points late in the second half, Audige burst through his defender for an uncontested halfcourt dunk.
The toughest stretch of Big Ten play continues with five of the next eight games on the road, including Wednesday at Rutgers.