Ben Johnson's first Big Ten win as the Gophers men's basketball coach came in Michigan in December, but his next trip to the state ended in heartbreaking fashion in Wednesday's last-second 71-69 loss at No. 10 Michigan State.
There was a water bottle shower celebration after the Dec. 11 upset in Ann Arbor. The mood in the locker room in East Lansing a month later was desolate after the sudden loss of their leader to an injury before a stinging defeat.
Senior big man Eric Curry's lower leg injury with less than a minute left kept him sidelined when Joey Hauser scored the game-winning basket in the final second.
Johnson focused after the game more on the comeback effort of his Gophers (10-4, 1-4) and Curry's stellar game than the unfortunate injury and last play.
"You feel for EC because you know he wanted to be out there in the end," Johnson said. "You talk about the game he played not only offensively with 19 points, but the job he did defensively on the inside. You just feel for him because he couldn't finish it because I know he wanted to."
The extent of Curry's injury was uncertain after the game. There was no official update Thursday, but the Gophers clearly were a different team with his inside presence.
Here are four things we learned from the Gophers' loss at Michigan State on Wednesday:
There must be something about playing the Spartans that brought the confidence out of Curry this season.
Both of his career-highs in scoring came in their two meetings. The 6-9 co-captain had 18 points on 9-for-16 shooting in the 75-67 loss Dec. 8 at Williams Arena. And his career-best 19 points Wednesday came on 8-for-12 shooting, to go with seven rebounds and a block in 30 minutes.
It would've been 31 minutes if Curry hadn't come down awkwardly on a rebound in the waning seconds. It was a difficult sight for his Gophers teammates and fans who have watched him return from three major injuries to play a sixth season.
But Johnson appeared optimistic after the game on hopefully Curry returning to action after he goes through rehab. The timetable is unknown, but what the Gophers will miss if he's sidelined is significant.
Curry's importance as a coach on the floor couldn't be judged from the box score. But his numbers also have been impressive with 10.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.0 steals per game in Big Ten play.
When the Gophers needed a basket to match Michigan State's runs, they often went to Curry on the block. He hasn't always looked to be the go-to guy offensively, but he leads the team with 52% shooting from the field in league games.
Replacing that scoring presence in the paint if he's out or not himself in the short term will need to come from everyone in the rotation, especially senior backup Charlie Daniels (1.7 points per game).
BATTLING ON BOARDS
One of the glaring issues for the Gophers in their first three losses this season was giving up way too much in rebounding margin, including minus-15 against the Spartans in the previous meeting.
The Gophers were the worst team in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (minus-3.6) last season and they were 13th in the conference overall (minus-5.5) going into Wednesday's game.
Crashing the offensive boards wasn't part of Johnson's philosophy coming in ranked last in Division I in offensive rebounding percentage (16.7), per Kenpom.com.
But the Gophers decided to ease up on the transition defense (gave up 12 fastbreak points) in order to hit the boards on offense more often against Michigan State the second time around.
The result was Minnesota only being outrebounded 33-32. Meanwhile, the Spartans were beat on the offensive boards 12-6 and 17-8 in second chance points. Curry (four), Daniels and E.J. Stephens (three each) combined for 10 offensive rebounds.
THREE AND D
Entering Wednesday, the Gophers were still the top three-point shooting defensive team in the Big Ten by holding opponents to 26.9% shooting, ranking 12th in Division I.
That was a huge part of the team's identity to start with a 10-0 record in Johnson's first season, but the Gophers aren't living up to that in their four losses.
Michigan State twice, Illinois, and Indiana shot 42.5% (31-for-73) from beyond the arc combined. Minnesota's three-point defense got a little better in the second half, but the Spartans still shot 6-for-14 in East Lansing.
Making matters worse, the Gophers are shooting just 20-for-81 (24.7%) from beyond the arc in their losses and 26.3% (26-for-99) in conference play overall, which is worst than last season (27.9%).
The Gophers have been searching for a reliable third scorer this season behind Jamison Battle and Payton Willis – and it looks like they've found him.
Lafayette transfer E.J. Stephens has been the third leading scorer this season, but he didn't always take on that role in some of their big games. He had 14 points combined on 6-for-19 shooting in losses to Michigan State (first time) and Illinois. Willis struggled in those games as well, thus the need for another perimeter threat.
Enter Stephens on Wednesday night. The 6-3 senior guard tied his season-high with 18 points on 6-for-12 shooting, to go with six rebounds and four assists in 35 minutes. His downhill slashing attack put pressure on Michigan State's defense, which eventually helped his teammates get open shots.
Stephens outscored Battle and Willis combined 10-9 in the first half since he wasn't the focal point of the Spartans scouting report.
"The game plan was to get downhill off the ball screens," Stephens said. "And that was every guard to get two feet in the paint to make a play. Whether it was a dump down to the big, which we did a couple times, shoot a pull up, or just get all the way to the rim."