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Gophers men’s basketball suffers fifth straight loss at Northwestern

EVANSTON, ILL. –Coach Ben Johnson knew his Gophers men’s basketball team offense would struggle to score points on Saturday without leading scorer Dawson Garcia at Northwestern, so that was another area that was a big disappointment.

One of the Gophers’ worst defensive performances in Big Ten play compounded their scoring woes in an 81-61 Saturday afternoon loss to the Wildcats at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Jamison Battle led the way with a season-high 20 points on 7-on-12 shooting from the field for the Gophers (7-13, 1-9 Big Ten). Garcia missed his second straight game while recovering from a bone bruise on his right foot sustained in a Jan. 22 loss at Michigan.

Chase Audige and Boo Buie had 45 points and 10 assists for the Wildcats (15-5, 6-3), who shot 52% from the field.

In Wednesday’s 61-57 loss to Indiana, Johnson was proud of his seven scholarship players battling the Hoosiers and playing well enough defensively to lead the streak. The reverse was the case on Saturday with Northwestern leading 45-28 in the first half after shooting 55% from the field.

Freshman big man Pharrel Payne made his first career start on Saturday after missing the previous game while under concussion protocol. Payne, a loadout at 6-9 and 255 pounds, showed 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 in 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 beat the Gophers 31-8 in the first half. Audige picked up eight points in a decisive 11-0 run that turned the match in favor of the home side.

Battle struggled to open eyes throughout the 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 of 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 on Jan. 12 at Ohio State. During a four-game losing streak, the U has averaged just 53 points, including just 39 against Purdue on Jan. 19.

A defensive identity is what Johnson hoped the Gophers would embrace in his sophomore season. After holding the Hoosiers to 37% shooting on Wednesday, Minnesota took a step back in Evanston.

In the second half, the Wildcats extended their lead to 61-36 after a three-point shot from Audige on a late close with the Gophers playing a 2-3 zone.

Garcia and freshman Braeden Carrington (leg injury) meant the Gophers gave more playing time to reserves, including sophomore Treyton Thompson, freshman Jaden Henley and former walker Will Ramberg.

Effort wasn’t always the problem. Chemistry and communication were definitely lacking on several defensive errors. After Cooper’s lay-up made it a 17-point deficit at the end of the second half, Audige blew through his defender for an uncontested dunk in the half-court set.

The toughest part of the Big Ten game continues with five of the next eight games on the road, including Wednesday at Rutgers.

startribune Gt Itly

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