Men’s basketball: Gophers top Nebraska, 78-75, in first round Big Ten tournament
Minnesota will play No. 6 seed Maryland at approximately 8 p.m. Thursday.
CHICAGO -- The goal for the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team on Wednesday was to take the next step.
It was a modest movement but Minnesota did what they couldn’t in Ben Johnson’s first postseason a year ago: win a first-round Big Ten tournament game.
The 14th-seeded Gophers overcame an ugly start to take an 11-point lead and weathered a late drought to knock off 12th-seed Nebraska 78-75 in Chicago. Minnesota will play Maryland at approximately 8 p.m. Thursday.
The last-place seed in the conference tournament had lost in the opening round in four straight years since 2018, including the Gophers falling 60-51 to Penn State last year.
Dawson Garcia, who was voted Big Ten honorable mention Tuesday, led Minnesota with 18 points, 13 rebounds and six assists.
The Gophers (9-21) won for the second time in three games in March. Minnesota was in a similar spot Sunday vs. Wisconsin, with halftime and late-game leads but couldn’t make free throws down the stretch in another close loss.
The Gophers didn’t score a basket for the final four minutes Wednesday, but made 10 free throws in that final stretch.
After Jaden Henley made a free throw with a second left, Nebraska’s Keisei Tominaga last-second half court heave hit back iron.
With 16 minutes left, Minnesota had its biggest lead, 50-39, but it whittled away until a turning point with 10 minutes left.
Jamison Battle drew his fourth foul, but Ben Johnson didn’t sit the senior. On the next defensive possession, Battle was whistled for a block foul and Minnesota lost one of its best players for the rest of the night.
Johnson repeatedly voiced his anger, needed to be held back by assistant coach Dave Thorson and received a technical foul.
Nebraska (16-16) then made four free throws to cut Minnesota’s lead to 60-57.
Ta’Lon Cooper had a season-high 12 assists and a program record for a conference tourney game. He broke the record set by his head coach.
The Gophers got off to an unsightly start, missing its first four shots and committing four turnovers on eight possessions to trail 8-0 in the first five minutes. But the U bounced back with a 26-11 run to take a 26-19 lead with under six minutes left in the half.
Minnesota led 37-33 at the half, a similar spot to when they were up 33-29 over Wisconsin but couldn’t finish in a 71-67 loss.
Minnesota also kept Nebraska from winning a third straight this season. The Huskers won 81-79 in overtime at Williams Arena on Jan. 7 and then 78-67 in Lincoln on Feb. 25.
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