MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team and its struggling defense appeared to catch a major break Wednesday night when Minnesota lost its leading scorer to an injury 16 seconds into the game.
It didn’t matter. The Badgers still couldn’t stop the Golden Gophers from scoring.
Junior guard DeAndre Mathieu and junior forward Maurice Walker scored 18 points apiece, and Minnesota never trailed en route to an 81-68 victory over No. 9 UW in a Big Ten Conference game at Williams Arena.
The Gophers shot 58.9 percent from the field and made all 11 of their free throw attempts to hand the Badgers, who were riding a 16-game winning streak just nine days ago, their third consecutive defeat.
UW’s defense struggled in losses to Indiana and Michigan last week, and it somehow got worse against Minnesota.
“We have to buckle down now,” said UW sophomore forward Sam Dekker, who finished with a game-high 20 points. “There’s not much else you can say, except that we have to be better in every aspect of the defensive end. Usually we take pride in it, and this is embarrassing the way we’re playing.”
Later, Dekker used another adjective to describe UW’s play on defense.
“We played miserable,” he said.
UW (16-3, 3-3 Big Ten) allowed a season-high 1.42 points per possession, including 1.74 in the second half. The Badgers allowed 48 points in the paint eight days after giving up 52 against Indiana.
“We gave up way too many easy ones,” UW junior guard Josh Gasser said.
The most demoralizing part for UW is the Gophers’ offense didn’t miss a beat without junior guard Andre Hollins, who injured his left ankle after making a jumper on the opening possession of the game and didn’t return.
Hollins was averaging a team-high 16.2 points per game this season and had averaged 19.8 points in four previous games against UW, but Minnesota didn’t seem to miss his production one bit.
Mathieu, Walker, senior Malik Smith (14 points) and senior guard Austin Hollins (11) picked up the slack to help first-year coach Richard Pitino win his debut against the Badgers, who were 16-5 against Minnesota under UW coach Bo Ryan coming into the game.
“They have a lot of good players,” Ryan said. “They can go other places.”
The 6-foot-10 Walker, who shed 65 pounds in the offseason and is now listed at 250, gave the Gophers (15-5, 4-3) an unexpected lift in the first half, scoring 14 points to help Minesota build a 34-28 halftime lead.
Walker had 12 points by the midway point of the first half, surpassing his previous career high of 11.
Ryan was searching for answers in the post after junior center Frank Kaminsky picked up two fouls in the opening 2:32 of the game. Freshman Nigel Hayes, junior Zach Bohannon and freshman Vitto Brown were all given a chance to stop Walker, but none of the three could do it.
“We have not had the post presence defensively,” Ryan said. “Some of it is due to maybe lack of foot speed, lack of recognition. The idea is, you can’t give up one thing and then turn around and shut that off and then give up something else.
“It’s got to be the complete possession. And that’s what we haven’t been doing.”
In the second half, Mathieu, Smith and Austin Hollins combined for 34 points, with much of that damage the result of dribble penetration.
It was like the Indiana game all over again for UW.
The Badgers shot 50 percent from the field in the second half and made 16 of their 17 free throws, but they couldn’t make up any ground on the Gophers.
Perhaps the most stunning stat from the game is UW only forced six stops on its 27 defensive possessions in the second half.
“It’s frustrating, because you’re working hard, Sam was attacking the rim pretty good at the end there,” Gasser said. “We’re scoring fine, but when you don’t get stops, it really means nothing.”
That’s been a common theme the past three games. Three consecutive Big Ten opponents have shot better than 50 percent against UW, only the second time that’s happened in the Ryan era.
It’s no wonder Gasser has run out of things to say about the Badgers’ porous defense.
“I’m kind of sick of talking about it,” Gasser said. “We’ve just got to (fix) it.”