INDIANAPOLIS – After her speech in the locker room before Saturday’s semifinal against Ohio State, Gophers coach Marlene Stollings could sense her team was determined to make a statement.
The Gophers likely had already solidified their NCAA tournament chances with a victory against Iowa in the quarterfinals, so there was no pressure. They wanted to shoot for a conference tournament title, but came up just short.
Carlie Wagner, Kenisha Bell and Gadiva Hubbard combined for 73 points Saturday, but the Gophers fell 90-88 to the 13th-ranked Buckeyes at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The Gophers (23-8) were trying to make their first appearance in the Big Ten tournament final since 2005. But Stollings and her players have to settle now for waiting to see where they will be seeded in the Big Dance during the selection show March 12.
“This is a team that’s come a long way,” Stollings said. “We’re not done yet, so that gives us a little bit of relief in this tough, tough moment. We were just one shot away from playing on championship Sunday — and it stings for quite a while.”
After Hubbard’s three-pointer cut it to a two-point deficit, Big Ten regular-season champion Ohio State (26-6) missed two free throws to set up a last play for the Gophers to tie or win the game.
Following a timeout, Wagner got a look inside the foul line, but her shot was heavily contested and missed as the buzzer sounded.
Bell, who had a team-high 27 points and 10 assists, gave her team an 85-79 lead on a scoop shot with 4:40 left in the fourth quarter. But the Gophers went scoreless for a 4½-minute stretch.
A crowd of mostly Buckeyes fans went silent while their team was scoreless for nearly five minutes. But Ohio State used an 11-0 run to seal their first Big Ten tourney title appearance since 2015.
With her team down 86-85, Bell drove the lane but lost the ball out of bounds. After reviewing the play, the officials gave Ohio State the ball back with 34.6 seconds left and Kelsey Mitchell made two free throws.
Mitchell had 30 points and Stephanie Mavunga added 26 points, 21 rebounds and seven blocks for Ohio State. Five of Mavunga’s blocks came in the fourth quarter when the Gophers shot just 3-for-17.
“I think we were rushing,” Bell said. “We thought we had something in transition, and instead of pulling it back out and settling down and staying poised, we were kind of rushing it.”
The Gophers led 32-22 after the first quarter behind Wagner’s 19 points, the most in a quarter for any Gopher all season.
Wagner was held to just seven points thereafter. But Hubbard finished with 20 points.
Minnesota was a No. 8 seed by ESPN’s updated NCAA tournament projections before Saturday.
“Fingers crossed that we’re going to pop up there on selection Monday,” Stollings said. “It’ll be our second time in four years, and I’m really pleased for the program to be making that stride.”