Throughout much of the Big Ten season, senior forward Christian Watford had been the catalyst for the IU men’s basketball team early in the first half.
But his first shot in Tuesday night’s 77-73 loss on the road to unranked Minnesota proved to be symbolic of how the games of he and several IU starters would unfold.
With an open look from the left wing beyond the arc, Watford sent his shot sailing over the rim, glancing off the backboard for one of his uglier shots of the season.
From there on, he, sophomore forward Cody Zeller and freshman guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell would go on to combine for just four points in the first half. They were scoreless from the floor on 0-of-11 shooting from the field as No. 1 IU went into the first half with a 34-30 lead.
The trio, which averaged 37 points coming into Tuesday night’s matchup all seemed to struggle down low with Minnesota’s size.
On several drives to the basket, the usually quick Ferrell could never manage to beat his defender to the bucket.
Zeller had two of his shots blocked while he battled down low against Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe and Elliot Eliason, an unusual occurrence for the 7-footer.
“They were physical with him,” IU Coach Tom Crean said. “Extremely physical with him.”
The Hoosiers were able to maintain pace with the Golden Gophers with the help of a stellar first half from beyond the arc from senior guard Jordan Hulls who went 4-of-5 on 3-pointers for 14 first half points.
IU’s other starter, junior guard Victor Oladipo, added nine.
Ferrell was the first of the three to break through with a field goal early in the second half, and he followed his layup with a 3-pointer 2:02 later to boost IU’s lead to six points.
For a few minutes, it seemed that IU may have finally gained the momentum as Oladipo added a layup to boost the lead to eight.
Yet in a moment where the Hoosiers could have used veterans like Watford and Zeller to step on the gas and continue to pressure the Golden Gophers, Minnesota finally found its footing.
The Golden Gophers went on a 15-4 run to take a 51-48 lead. IU would hold a brief one-point lead for three seconds, but two late Watford 3-pointers that kept IU in the game down the stretch were not enough to dig the Hoosiers out a seven-point hole on the road.
Ferrell finished as the only one of the three in double figures with 10 points and Zeller followed with nine. But the pair combined to shoot 4-of-19 shots from the field against a conference foe looking for a quality late-season victory.
“We knew we were walking in here to face a desperate team, and they played like a desperate team,” IU Associate Head Coach Steve McClain said.