Brust and the Badgers Put Gophers NCAA Tournament Hopes on Hold

Mike McGinnis

Ben Brust and Wisconsin not only destroyed Minnesota on the court, they may have also destroyed the Gophers NCAA Tournament chances.

With Wisconsin (26-6, 12-6) up over 20 late in the game and still hoisting quick shots, Minnesota (20-13, 8-10) head Coach Richard Pitino - doing his best Rick impersonation - shot Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan a half-disgusted, half-disgruntled stare. With Wisconsin picking up an 83-57 win, that staring-contest was the only battle anyone on the Minnesota sidelines won on this night.

The first half was a seesaw struggle. Wisconsin led by 12 early, but the Gophers went on a run with both Andre and Austin Hollins -- who were ineffective all night long -- on the bench to close it to six. Bronson Koening hit two threes in a 36-second span to push the lead back to double digits with two-minutes left in the half. Wisconsin took a 34-22 lead into the locker room.

Minnesota shot 29% in the first half. In fact, Wisconsin had as many rebounds - 22 - as the Gophers had missed shots. Not only was Minnesota ice-cold, they were getting outrun by a Badger team not exactly known for their up-tempo brand of basketball. The Badgers led 9-3 in fast break points. What in the world of Bo Ryan was going on?

A competitive first-half gave way to a second-half slaughter, with the curmudgeonly Ryan looking on as his team exploded for 49 points. The Gophers were held to 35, many of which came when the game was far out of reach.

A surefire -- and obvious -- way to lose a basketball game is by never holding a lead. Wisconsin jumped out to a 2-0 advantage on a beautiful Sam Dekker reverse and never looked back.

Another foolproof way to lose a basketball game is by having your starters nearly outscored by the opposing bench. The Badger bench scored 38 points. Minnesota's starters combined for 45.

The scoreboard may have indicated a close game at times, but Ryan and his squad had this one firmly in hand from the opening tip.

Richard Pitino may have failed to mention to his team that their NCAA tournament life depended on winning this game. Deandre Mathieu was the only Gopher who played with the realization of how huge this win would be for their post season chances. The diminutive 5-9 guard slashed, dashed, and sliced his way through the paint, accounting for 18 points and five assists. He was the lone bright star on an otherwise dark night for Minnesota.

Conversely, Wisconsin played as if they were the team clinging to a bubble spot. The Badgers out-hustled the Gophers on both ends of the court.

The key to success for the Badgers was limiting points in the paint. Minnesota had plenty of looks near the rim, but big man and low post anchor Frank Kaminsky and his teammates did an excellent job of altering shots and forcing off-kilter attempts. The Badgers post defense was a huge reason the Gophers shot 32.8% from the field.

Andre Hollins, the Gophers leading scorer, didn't connect on a field goal until there were only four minutes left in the game. Austin Hollins, in his last B1G game ever, didn't fare much better. As he sulked on the bench while the game drew to a close, it was hard not to feel for the senior.

While Au. Hollins B1G career came to a close, young freshman Koenig began penning material for the first chapter of his. Coming into this contest averaging a mere 2.9 points per game, Koenig outscored two of Minnesota's top three leading scorers (Austin and Andre Hollins) 14-13. This young man looks poised for a bright career with Bo and the Badgers.

After the game B1G Sixth Man of the Year Nigel Hayes - who had himself a game, going for 15 points and 6 rebounds off the bench - paid homage to a terrific performance by senior guard Ben Brust, saying, "I just want my children to be like him." High praise, but a professional sharpshooter like Brust, who poured in a career-high 29 points on an effective 15 shots, deserves no less.

With the win - the 700th of Bo Ryan's celebrated career - the Badgers continue to make their case for a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The Gophers, on the other hand, will likely find their invitation to the Big Dance "lost in the mail" after this disappointing defeat.

Come Selection Sunday Pitino and the Gophers will be resting on the laurels of their strong strength of schedule and little else. One more RPI Top-25 win could have gone a long, long way.

Relegation to the NIT with the rest of the NCAA also-rans is a small consolation prize for the Golden Gophers. It looks like March Madness will have to wait one more year for a double dose of Pitino.

On the other side of the fence, Bo Ryan knows exactly what tournament his team will be in. The Badgers will look to keep rolling when they take on the winner of Michigan State-Northwestern tomorrow (CBS, 4:10pm ET). Ryan is looking for his first B1G Tournament championship since 2008. More importantly than a third tournament title, a B1G championship run would fuel the fire behind Wisconsin's case for a 1-seed.

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