EVANSTON, IL – Coach Ben Johnson knew his offense would have a tough time putting points on the scoreboard without Northwestern’s Gophers leader Dawson Garcia.
One of the worst defensive performances in Big Ten play, combined with turnover issues, led to the Gophers’ 81-61 loss to the Wildcats on Saturday afternoon in front of an announced crowd of 6,064 at Wilsh-Ryan Arena.
“To give up 81 points and combine that with 15 turnovers, that’s not a recipe for success or giving yourself a chance,” Johnson said. “And not being able to come back and have the same competitive fight is disappointing.”
Jamison Battle led the Gophers (7-13, 1-9 Big Ten) with 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting from the field. But Garcia missed his second straight game in the Jan. 22 loss at Michigan while recovering from a broken bone in his right foot.
Chase Audige and Boo Buie had 45 points and 10 assists for the Wildcats (15-5, 6-3), who shot 52% from the field.
“I think the offense will find its way,” Johnson said. “I was more upset with the defensive effort to give up 81. Credit to those guys. They played down and were aggressive.”
In Wednesday’s 61-57 loss against Indiana, Johnson was proud of his seven scholarship players for battling and playing well against the Hoosiers. The opposite was true on Saturday when Northwestern shot 55% and led 45-28 in the first half.
Freshman big man Pharrell Payne made his first career start Saturday after missing the previous game while in the concussion protocol. Payne struggled to generate inside presence, collecting three points and four of the team’s 15 turnovers.
“For whatever reason, I thought today, even when we had the early lead, it didn’t feel the same,” Johnson said. “We can’t give in to situations. We have to find a way to play with the same edge we did against Indiana.”
Battle scored the game’s first basket on a jumper for a 9-5 lead. Joshua Ola-Joseph ended the lane with a floater for an 11-7 advantage, but that sparked Northwestern’s explosive backcourt.
Odige, who had a game-high 24 points, dominated the first half as the Wildcats outscored the Gophers 31-8. The senior guard had eight points during the decisive 11-0 run.
Battle struggled to get open looks early, but his three-pointer cut it to 27-18 with 6:43 left. The Wildcats, who scored 13 points on 11 turnovers in the first half, got back-to-back layups from Buie Taolon Cooper to fuel a 9-0 run. Bui finished with 21 points and eight rebounds.
The Gophers entered Saturday as the Big Ten’s lowest scoring team at 62.2 points per game. It became an even bigger nightmare after a 70-67 win over Ohio State on Jan. 12. U is averaging just 55 points during the five-game losing streak.
To make matters worse this season, the Gophers are dead last in Division 1 in bad shooting, a 16-for-26 margin Saturday.
Defensive identity is what the Gophers need to embrace in Johnson’s second season. Minnesota took a step closer to Evanston after the Hoosiers were held to 37% shooting Wednesday.
“It’s just about highlighting the little things,” Battle said. “That’s what good teams do. They’re so dialed into things that you don’t think anything of, but they actually have a big impact. I think that’s where we need to take a step.”
In the second half, the Colts opened their lead to 61-36 after Odij’s three-pointer.
Effort was not always the issue. Chemistry and connection are gone. Following a Cooper lineup that saw a 17-point deficit at the end of the second half, Odige suffered a loss on the defensive end.
The toughest Big Ten play continues with five of its next eight games on the road, including Wednesday at Rutgers.
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