Gophers fall at Nebraska on last-second free throws

LINCOLN, NEB. – On the outside looking in, it might seem like Minnesota and Nebraska are in a similar situation – both on the bubble and fighting for their NCAA tournament lives.

The Gophers played early like they were desperate for a quality win. They were focused and aggressive on both ends to jump out to a 19-8 lead. It wouldn’t stay quite so easy, though.

Not wanting to pile on to what had already been a pretty disappointing basketball season for their home fans, the Cornhuskers rallied to make it a back-and-forth affair the rest of the way.

James Palmer Jr. hit two free throws with 1.1 seconds left to keep the Gophers winless in Pinnacle Bank Arena after falling 62-61 Wednesday night.

Jordan Murphy, who led the Gophers with 19 points, powered in a layup on the baseline with 59 seconds left to give his team a 61-59 lead.

Palmer Jr., who finished with 24 points, had a chance to tie the game, but he hit 1-for-2 free throws to trail by a point. The senior would get a chance to redeem himself.

Murphy scored eight of his team’s last 10 points, but he was called for the offensive foul to give the Huskers a chance to win the game.

The Gophers thought they came up with the game-winning defensive play, but Dupree McBrayer stepped on the out of bounds line on the rebound. That gave the home team the chance it needed to end a seven-game losing streak.

Amir Coffey was called for a foul while guarding Palmer on the baseline as the seconds winded down. The Gophers disputed the call, but it was to no avail.

Minnesota coach Richard Pitino had a 1-6 road record entering the game, including four straight losses away from home. The last time the U won on the road before Wednesday night was in a 59-52 victory at Wisconsin on Jan. 3.

Three of the Gophers’ road losses were by 20 points or more, including a 79-55 trouncing at Michigan State last Saturday.

The opportunity was in front of Pitino’s team, though, with three straight road games against opponents at the bottom of the Big Ten. Nebraska, Rutgers (Feb. 24) and Rutgers (Feb. 28) had a combined league record of 10-28 entering Wednesday.

The Cornhuskers, who were on a seven-game losing streak looked overmatched in the outset when Daniel Oturu scored eight straight points using his size advantage. Amir Coffey’s three-pointer made it a 15-4 lead, but Matz Stockman’s dunk gave the Gophers their biggest lead at 11 points midway through the first half.

The Huskers crowd was getting restless, but their team responded with a 14-2 run, including seven straight field goals. James Palmer Jr.’s gave them a 22-21 lead, but Minnesota managed to take a 31-30 halftime advantage.

In the second half, Palmer and Glynn Watson gave Nebraska the momentum back. Watson had 11 of his 19 points after halftime.

The Gophers trailed by seven points before using a 9-0 run take a 44-41 lead on a basket from Oturu, but the Huskers wouldn’t let them pull away this time.

Neither team could get much separation, but Palmer finished off a strong drive to make it 59-55 Nebraska around the four-minute mark.

Where the Gophers had the height advantage in the frontcourt, they struggled to defend Nebraska’s quicker guards off the pick-and-roll.

They got a key steal and two free throws from Oturu under two minutes remaining on a switch, though, to set up a nail-biting finish.