Three days after losing by 21 points at Iowa, the floundering Gophers lost by 26 at Ohio State.
Updated: February 21, 2013 - 12:51 AM
COLUMBUS, OHIO - Hit with the question, Andre Hollins paused for nine seconds.
He looked away from the team's bus, about to depart, and down Value City Arena's emptying innards, as if the answer to the Gophers' late-season struggles could be found somewhere along the concrete walls, mixed in with the piles of swept trash.
What is the difference?
What accounts for the transformation from a basketball team that finished games, that rose to the occasion, that was ranked No. 8 in the nation to one that has lost eight of its past 11 after Wednesday night's 71-45 loss to Ohio State.
"I guess our mental toughness," he said finally. "I guess that's the difference, just being mentally tough."
A team that was perhaps just as desperate for a victory, No. 18 Ohio State (19-7, 9-5 Big Ten) rebounded from a sluggish first half to run away from the Gophers (18-9, 6-8) quickly and efficiently in the second. The Gophers suffered a similar fate against Iowa on Sunday.
"We were the aggressive team tonight," said Deshaun Thomas, who had 19 points and three rebounds. "That's what you've got to do when a team is coming off of a loss like that -- keep punching them and punching them."
That the Buckeyes did. Most of the Gophers' starters didn't even put up a good fight, with just Hollins (11 points, eight rebounds) scoring more than five points, and Rodney Williams and Joe Coleman each putting up zeros.
After a buzzer-beating three-point shot from Aaron Craft gave the Buckeyes a six-point edge at the break, Ohio State pushed the tempo in the second. Having lost three of their past four, the Buckeyes stifled the Gophers with defensive pressure, forcing them into a season-high 24 turnovers.
The Gophers had managed to stay within striking distance in the first half despite shooting just 33.3 percent from the field, turning over the ball 10 times and watching Williams -- who started despite a gimpy left shoulder -- and Coleman both sit with two fouls within the game's first four minutes.
But any scrappiness quickly evaporated in the second. Powered by Thomas, Ohio State went on a 16-0 run that drove the Gophers -- who went scoreless for more than 10 minutes -- into a 53-31 hole.
"Once again, it was we just shot ourselves in the foot," said Oto Osenieks (10 points, five rebounds). "The pressure wasn't that big from them -- we've just got to take care of the ball."
As the minutes waned, coach Tubby Smith put out mostly reserves and sat on the bench, head cupped in his hand. Afterward, Hollins said no one spoke in the locker room as Smith spent extra time with his players, trying to make his message click.
"It was just quiet," Hollins said. "Coach was talking and there wasn't much we could say. ... We're just trying to figure out what's wrong."
It's a tough time to try to do so, with No. 1 Indiana just around the corner. But while the Gophers still look primed for an NCAA tournament berth based on their early-season success and strength of schedule, the longer a slide continues, the more it weighs on a team that has seen this happen each of the last three seasons, and that no longer knows where to look for answers.
"We're looking for the leadership within the team to step up," Smith said.
But the leadership, it seems, is lost.
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