MINNEAPOLIS – Wisconsin has been more productive with the ball this season than in any other under coach Bo Ryan.
But the formula for success over the past two decades, that stingy defense, has begun to fail the Badgers.
DeAndre Mathieu and Mo Walker each scored 18 points, an outside-inside combination that pushed Minnesota to an 81-68 victory Wednesday night over No. 9 Wisconsin, the Badgers' third straight loss.
"If you look at the points per game that we're giving up in these last three games, it's been embarrassing to say the least," center Frank Kaminsky said.
Malik Smith added 14 points for the Golden Gophers (15-5, 4-3 Big Ten), including the exclamatory, shot clock-beating 3-pointer with 39 seconds left. Austin Hollins had 11 points and four steals, Walker grabbed nine rebounds, and Mathieu went 8 for 13 from the floor. The Gophers shot 58.9 percent despite losing leading scorer Andre Hollins just 16 seconds into the game with an injury to his left ankle.
"They made some tough ones, but at the same time we gave up a few easy ones that kind of got 'em going," guard Josh Gasser said. "And at home, you give them some confidence, they get the crowd into it, and that's not a recipe for success."
Sam Dekker led the Badgers (16-3, 3-3) with 20 points and six rebounds. Nigel Hayes added 12 points, and Kaminsky and Gasser had nine points apiece. But the conference's leading 3-point shooting team never held the lead, unable to get that perimeter game going. The Badgers finished 5 for 20 from behind the arc, and didn't fare any better around the basket. Letting the Gophers do almost whatever they wanted inside, whether throwback post moves or drive-and-dish layups, the Badgers were outscored 48-24 in the paint.
"When you're playing from behind, it's never been a strength to be on the road of any team to keep digging out," said Ryan, who fell to 16-6 against Minnesota.
The Gophers hadn't scored this many points against the Badgers since a 109-78 win on Feb. 12, 1994.
The early equalizer for Minnesota was two quick fouls on the 7-foot Kaminsky, whose absence left Wisconsin at a serious size disadvantage underneath. With just 2:32 elapsed, Kaminsky, the team's second-leading scorer and the conference's top 3-point shooter at 46.8 percent coming into the game, was on the bench.
"That's definitely frustrating to watch," Kaminsky said, adding: "Just to sit there and watch, you can't do anything about it. I thought we did better in the second half not letting them have anything inside, but then they went outside and they killed us there."
Walker took full advantage of Kaminsky's foul trouble, powering his way past Hayes, Vitto Brown or anyone else assigned to stop the 6-foot-10, 250-pound junior. Walker, who lost more than 20 percent of that weight over the spring and summer so he could keep up with coach Richard Pitino's fast-break style and stay on the team, surpassed his career high in scoring less than 10 minutes into the first half. That all came on dunks, layups and spin moves.
"They saw that they could be successful inside on us, and they kept feeding him," Dekker said. "We were making mistakes. You never want to see a great player like Andre Hollins go down with an injury. We hope for him to get better. But that kind of took them out of the outside shot and forced them to get stuff in the paint, and it worked for them. Credit to them for good offensive schemes on us, but also it was our fault. We played miserable defense tonight."
This is only Ryan's fifth losing streak of three games or more since arriving at Wisconsin in 2001. The last one came two years ago.
Ranked as high as fourth in The Associated Press poll last week, the Badgers started a program-best 16-0 before hitting a snag last week in this strong-as-ever league. The last time they scored as many points per game (75.8 entering the night) as they have been averaging this winter, future NBA star Michael Finley was wearing a Wisconsin uniform.
But the defense is more important, as evidenced recently. The Badgers entered the game giving up the second-fewest points in the conference, but during their losing streak they've allowed 75 points to Indiana, 77 points to Michigan and now 81 to Minnesota.
"We're scoring, fine, but when you don't get stops it doesn't matter," Gasser said.