LINCOLN, Neb. – Two seasons ago, the Gophers were being obliterated by nearly 40 points in the second half at Nebraska. Just to keep from running up the score, Cornhuskers coach Tim Miles played mostly his reserves for the last five minutes of the game in a 25-point win.
Richard Pitino’s team has come a long way since then.
Three starters from that embarrassing game in Lincoln in 2016 were still leading the No. 14 Gophers on Tuesday night. And they were humbled again in Minnesota’s fifth straight loss at Nebraska, 78-68 at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
If there’s a moral victory out of the first Big Ten defeat, the Gophers did turn a 17-point second-half deficit into being down single digits late in the game.
After Nebraska went scoreless for nearly three minutes, Nate Mason, Amir Coffey and Isaiah Washington hit three-pointers. Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy dunks cut it to eight, including Murphy’s basket to give him his 10th double-double and make it 74-66 with 51 seconds left.
The Cornhuskers (7-3, 1-1), who shot 57 percent in the second half, suddenly went cold shooting, but they hit their free throws to seal their first conference win. Glynn Watson Jr. had a season-high 29 points for Nebraska.
Mason and Coffey led the Gophers (8-2, 1-1) with 20 and 17 points, respectively.
For a team with aspirations of competing with Michigan State for a Big Ten title, the Gophers lacked energy and struggled on both ends of the floor to squander an opportunity to get that always-difficult conference road win.
Michigan State played a tight game with Rutgers on Tuesday, but it eventually pulled out a 10-point victory in New Jersey. The Spartans are 2-0 to end the early start to conference play, which included a 29-point win against Nebraska in East Lansing.
The Gophers are definitely not in an early hole at 1-1 in the Big Ten standings, but they have lost two of their past three games after a 7-0 start, including last week against Miami (Fla.) at home.
Minnesota’s loss to the Hurricanes was excusable against a top-10 team and with starting guard Dupree McBrayer out with a leg infection. McBrayer was back in the lineup for the second straight game Tuesday, but he struggled along with everyone else.
After trailing 5-0 to start the game, the Gophers briefly took a two-point lead around the 12-minute mark, but they were chasing the rest of the way. Murphy went to the bench seven minutes into the first half after falling hard for a loose ball. He made little impact after returning.
After being called one of the candidates for national player of the year, Murphy came down to earth a bit Tuesday. The Big Ten’s leading scorer and rebounder had 12 rebounds, but he was held to 10 points on 4-for-12 shooting.
After Mason cut it to 34-31 with under a minute left in the first half, Nebraska outscored Minnesota 14-1 going into halftime and to open the second half.
Watson scored eight straight points and Duby Okeke’s dunk gave the Cornhuskers a 48-32 advantage at 15:23.
Murphy’s putback cut it to a 13-point deficit at the 10-minute mark, but Nebraska had an answer to every comeback attempt. Anton Gill’s three-point play extended it to 63-46 with 7:18 remaining.