Two days later and I am still shaking my head. After sitting in a bar/sandwich shop in the middle of a deserted University of Minnesota campus, watching the Gophers play Michigan State, I found myself forgetting that I was watching the same Gopher team that lost badly to UNLV just a week earlier. Could the Gophers really come back from a 14 point deficit? Are they really within one point with less than four minutes to play? Could I be watching the biggest Gopher basketball upset that I can remember?

I didn’t give the Gophers much of a chance to beat the Spartans. Michigan State is deep, fully loaded, with experienced guards, and Raymar Morgan. Sometimes its good to be wrong. The Gophers showed grit and determination that was in short supply in recent years, and seemed to take Michigan State’s punches as challenges rather than reasons to shrink away. There may not be such a thing as a moral victory, but this loss was more impressive than any of the Gopher wins.

In my game preview and I said the Gophers could win with the right game plan, and I was almost right:

  • Short shot clocks and less pressing: The Gophers rarely pressed and did an excellent job of forcing Michigan State to use a lot of the shot-clock, at least when the Spartans didn’t beat the Gophers down the floor. Drew Neitzel, Michigan State’s not so All American anymore guard played a terrible game, shooting only 2-11 from the floor. The entire roster was plagued by turnovers, 19 in all. If the entire game was played in a half court situation, the Gophers could have won by ten, but their occasional mental lapses and perennial lack of team speed allowed Michigan State to simply run around, past, and through the Gopher defense all to often. Unlike the Gophers, the Spartans didn’t have a problem making lay ups.
  • Damian Johnson needs to neutralize Raymar Morgan: Damian Johnson played an excellent game, and played 26 minutes (second most on the team) but Morgan treated him like a speed bump. He scored a career high 31 points, pulled down 12 rebounds, and was subsequently named Big Ten player of the week. Raymar Morgan would not let his team lose.
  • Al Nolen needs to play the game of his life: While there is no statistical threshold to determine a game of someone’s life, I will give Al Nolen the benefit of the doubt. Neitzel couldn’t make anything. When he wasn’t frustrating the Spartan star he was stepping into passing lanes (he finished with 4 steals) and distributing the ball (7 assists). He attempted a few ill-advised shots and committed a turnover in a crucial situation, but don’t listen to anyone (including a certain Strib writer) suggesting that he lost the game. Without his solid a mature play, the game would have been lost much, much earlier.
  • Blake Hoffarber needs to get hot: For whatever reason, Hoffarber didn’t get much playing time. He made both his shot attempts at scored five points, but he was generally a non-factor.

Despite not quite excelling in these areas, the Gophers still had a chance to win, and how they lost is what has me shaking my head. When watching a game without hearing any announcers or seeing any statistics, its easy to notice trends, but not necessarily easy trust your judgements. I knew the Gophers were getting out rebounded, missing lay ups, and clanking free throws, I just didn’t know how badly. My near giddiness from a near upset quickly turned into frustration as I realized the Gophers simply gave the game away.

While I refuse to blame any individual for a team loss (there are simply too many plays, situations, variables, freak incidents, etc in a 40 minute game for any individual to lose the game unless their name is Chris Webber) it is difficult not to point a finger at Spencer Tollackson. He missed lay-up after lay-up, despite getting excellent position against Michigan State’s front line and forcing them into foul trouble. He shot 5-12 from the floor and 2-6 from the free throw line for 12 points. But, he also led the Gophers in scoring. Oh the complexities of college basketball.

Even if Tollackson didn’t make a single shot, the Gophers still could have won, but they couldn’t overcome the reoccuring plague of poor rebounding. Despite both teams shooting the ball 55 times, Michigan State out-rebounded the Gophers by 20. Long rebounds, superior athleticism, whatever you would like to blame for this disparity, the Gophers couldn’t crash the boards, and they ultimately lost because of it.

The Gophers went into one of the toughest arenas in the country against the best team in the conference, didn’t play exceptionally, and only lost by six. I definitely can’t complain.

Who did what:

  • Lawrence McKenzie shot the ball from far, far away, but didn’t come close to helping the Gophers win. He finished with 10 points on 2-7 shooting. The senior enigma continues.
  • Dan Coleman got into early foul trouble and played exactly five minutes more than Kevin Peyton. The senior enigma continues.
  • Lawrence Westbrook played solid defense, but also found himself running the point as the first half clock wound down. It didn’t turn out well.
  • Spencer Tollackson was simultaneously the worst player on the court and the Gophers leading scorer. I don’t know what that means.
  • Al Nolen can’t be a freshman. I refuse to believe it.
  • Kevin Payton was bad. Myron Medcalf is worse.
  • Jonathan Williams didn’t do much but miss layups like Tollackson. He finished with 2 points.
  • Blake Hoffarber made a first half three, a layup in garbage time, and sat next to Ryan Saunders.
  • Travis Busch played in the first half, made his only shot, and didn’t do anything glaringly bad.
  • Damian Johnson played well, but not spectacularly. He finished with 6 points, a team leading 4 rebounds (ouch), 3 steals, and a block.
  • Ryan Saunders got more face time than he deserves. Now the whole world knows that he is Flip’s son and stellar hair gel.
  • Both Jamal Abu-Shamala and Indiana Jones have survived the stare of death. Indiana Jones got his heart back, and Jamal hit a big three and finished with 6 points.

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