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MEN'S BASKETBALL: Gophers’ furious comeback falls short in 84-79 loss to Indiana

Payton Willis poured in 19 second-half points and finished with a game-high 28 for Minnesota.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Minnesota
Minnesota guard E.J. Stephens (20) shoots the ball over Indiana's Miller Kopp (12) during the first half Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022, at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
HarHarrison Barden / USA Today Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Senior Day for the University of Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball team looked bleak midway through the second half at Williams Arena on Sunday.

Indiana was running Minnesota out of its own gym at a time when the U wanted to send its eight seniors out with a win in the final regular-season home game at The Barn.

The Hoosiers blitzed the flat-footed Gophers with a 30-10 stretch to start the second half to lead 70-43 with eight minutes left. In the middle of it, Minnesota turned the ball over, didn’t get back on defense and Jordan Geronimo threw down a dunk. Ben Johnson called a timeout to try to stop the snowballing.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Minnesota
Minnesota's Jamison Battle (10) drives to the basket as Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis (23) guards him during the first half Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022 at Williams Arena.
Harrison Barden / USA Today Sports

It didn’t happen immediately, but the Gophers’ showed pride with a 24-4 comeback to jolt the crowd and cut the lead to 74-67 with two minutes remaining. Minnesota fought until the end, but the hole was too big and Indiana held on for a 84-79 win.

“The way it ended is kind of who we are,” Johnson said postgame. “It’s not always pretty but we have a bunch of kids, young men that fight and my only message to them is I wish we would have had that fight a little bit earlier. I thought the ability to come back, you don’t do that if you’re not competitive.”

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During one second-half timeout, senior guard Sean Sutherlin was blunt.

“He basically said we were playing soft,” senior center Eric Curry said. “This is our last time in this building, so we all wanted to go out the right way. It was just finding ourselves a little bit.”

For Johnson, the seniors’ contribution during his first year leading his alma mater was more than wins and losses. He credited the eight with setting the foundation for how Minnesota wants to conduct itself on and off the court. After the game, the school honored Curry, Sutherlin, Payton Willis, Luke Loewe, E.J. Stephens, Charlie Daniels, Danny Ogele and walk-on Joey Kern. With their families present, Johnson presented them with framed jerseys.

Standing on center court with a microphone, Johnson’s voice cracked and he paused to gather his words about the senior class. “You guys showed trust in us and myself, uh, … and these guys are Gophers for life,” Johnson said.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Minnesota
Minnesota guard Sean Sutherlin (24) reacts after dunking over Indiana's Jordan Geronimo on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022, at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
Harrison Barden / USA Today Sports

Willis poured in 19 second-half points and finished with a game-high 28. He had an open 3-pointer with a minute left, but it hit the iron and he groaned at the missed opportunity. He didn’t stop there, making two more treys in the final 35 seconds, but couldn’t connect on others.

E.J. Stephens made a 3 with five seconds left to make it 82-79, but Xavier Johnson was fouled on the inbound and made both free throws. He led Indiana with 24 points.

The Hoosiers (18-10, 9-9) didn’t have a basket after Plymouth native Race Thompson’s dunk with 3:30 remaining, yet their 10 made free throws helped hold off Minnesota.

Trayce Jackson-Davis had 14 points, which was three points below his season average. In the first half, Jackson Davis was limited to six points on 3-of-4 shooting.

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Minnesota’s hill to climb was too big because Indiana was able to shoot 56% from the field and 48% from 3-point range.

The Gophers (13-14, 4-14) trailed 40-33 at the half, with five players scoring at least five points. With a 3-pointer on the final possession of the half, Willis led Minnesota with nine points. He would go off in the second half.

Curry, who contributed six points and seven rebounds, said he often smiles at Willis when he’s leading the way in games this season. “I haven’t played with him since we was in high school as 16-year-old kids and now we old,” Curry said, with a laugh. “Now we are on one of the biggest stages there is and he’s doing it. I’ve seen it all my life. … This year was definitely beautiful to watch.”

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