Defying every stereotype of the always choking Minnesota team, the Gophers roared back from a fourteen point deficit in the second half, took control early in overtime, and beat the Badgers leaving the Kohl Center in shocked and devastated silence. The 78-74 overtime win was Minnesota’s first victory in Madison since 1994, their first ever in the Kohl Center, and just the sixth win ever on Wisconsin’s home court.
The Gopher win doesn’t seem any less miraculous after watching it a second time, but at least I am now confident that it actually happened, something I still couldn’t fully believe after a restless night brought on by post traumatic basketball disorder. It was Minnesota’s most bizarrely wonderful win since they beat Indiana in overtime during the season that never happened. These things just don’t happen for us, they happen to us, but who am I to complain?
Minnesota’s win was the product of amazing individual performances, smothering defense, and just a bit of luck during the first five and last ten minutes of the game. During the other 35 minutes, the Gophers played some of the worst bordering on embarrassing basketball of the season. I gave up during those 35 minutes, and just about everyone else watching probably had flashbacks to blocked punts in the end zone with thirty seconds left, a missed field goal by a previously perfect kicker, a ball dropped out of bounds with no one near by. The only people who didn’t doubt themselves were the Gophers, and it gained for them plenty of believers.
The Gophers were clearly not intimidated by the Kohl Center, at least not in the first five minutes. Lawrence Westbrook knocked down a three pointer, Al Nolen hit an 18 footer, Colton Iverson threw in a layup, and Al Nolen hit a three pointer, all within the first four minutes of the game, and Minnesota was unexpectedly up 10-2. However, during that run, Damian Johnson picked up two questionable fouls. It took a few minutes for the Badgers to realize Minnesota’s best defender was out of the game, but once they did Wisconsin took advantage. The Badgers began to attack the basket just as the Gophers went ice-cold. What was once a 14-8 Minnesota lead slowly but steadily built into a 29-16 Badger lead, and the Gophers were reeling.
Wisconsin’s 21-2 run was brutal to watch. Travis Busch, supposedly filling in for Damian Johson was scored on in three consecutive possessions. The Gopher offense may have been ever worse, as they committed 8 turnovers in seven minutes, and on three straight possessions. To the Gophers credit, they didn’t wilt under the pressure and the roaring Wisconsin crowd. Lawrence Westbrook hit a jumper, Paul Carter made a lay-up, and Lawrence Westbrook made another lay-up. Suddenly, the Gophers had the ball and a chance to cut Wisconsin’s lead to a much more manageable two possessions with 22 seconds left in the half. However, the Gophers had one more turnover left in them. Jamal Abu-Shamala threw away the inbounds pass after a Gopher time-out, and Marcus Landry hit a three pointer contested by Paul Carter, and what could have been manageable was an 11 point Badger lead.
Ralph Sampson, who struggled mightily during Wisconsin’s big first half, played beyond his experience level in the second half, setting the tone for what would eventually be Minnesota’s most memorable come back in years. He blocked two shots and pulled down two rebounds in the first two minutes of the half. A Damian Johnson free throw, a Lawrence Westbrook jumper, and smooth left handed hook-shot by Ralph Sampson III in traffic, and the Gophers were back within seven. The Badgers answered with seven straight points of their own, and the Gophers seemed sunk. They had made their run, and they were three points further behind than they were at half time, 41-27
The Gophers still weren’t done though, at least not their defense. The Badgers scored only one point over the next five minutes. Damian Johnson hit a long three pointer and Al Nolen hit a lay-up in traffic. Johnson and Lawrence Westbrook hit another pair of jumpers and the Gophers were back within six, only to be answered by another six straight points from the Badgers.
With the Gophers barely hanging on, the junior college transfers took over. Minnesota had struggled all night against the Badger defense. They couldn’t set screens, and were taking forced shots with time running out on the shot clock. With the lack of screens, the Gophers were forced to try to beat the Badgers one on one, often with wrong players and the wrong match-ups. In the final four minutes the right players finally started to take the ball to the rim.
Devron Bostick, playing in his home state, made two consecutive lay-ups, blowing by the Badger defense. After his second lay-up, the Badgers brought the ball down for what appeared lay-up and a foul to put the game away. Instead, Paul Carter slid in to take the charge. A play that would have given the Badgers a 12 point lead turned into a turnover. Bostick was fouled on his next possession, hit both free throws and the Gophers were now within 8.
The Gophers had clawed back, but were running out time. Seemingly out of desperation, the Gophers turned on the full court pressure, and the Badgers didn’t know what hit them. A Devron Bostick drive led to a missed lay-up but Paul Carter followed up with a tip-in. Blake Hoffarber grabbed an immediate steal, handed it off to Westbrook for another lay-up, and the Gophers were within five. Marcus Landry made both free throws after what was clearly a clean block, but Lawrence Westbrook attacked the basket for another lay-up. Paul Carter picked up another steal, and off a give and go with Devron Bostick slammed in a dunk to cut Minnesota’s deficit to three points with just over two minutes to play. The Badgers responded as they had all night with a Marcus Landry lay-up and a free throw, and the Gophers, after all that work, were still staring at a six point deficit with one minute left. It could have been much worse.
Landry’s free throw came after Paul Carter dribbled the ball right off of his knee on what would have been at least a Gopher lay-up. Landry picked the ball up, but Carter was able to race down the court, past two of his teammates who had a head start, to force the Badger center to the free throw line where he made only one of two shots. It would not be his last game saving play.
In the frantic final minute of regulation, Paul Carter and Lawrence Westbrook each made two free throws. After Westbrooks free throws, Wisconsin successfully and finally broke through the Gophers pressing defensive, but Carter once again raced down the court to block Jason Bohannon’s lay-up attempt with thirty seconds left. The Gophers came back down, Damian Johnson hit a long three pointer, and the Gophers were back within one point for the first time since the score was 15-14 with 12:39 left in the first half. Minnesota sent Joe Krabbenhoft to the free throw line. He hit both free throws, and the Gophers trailed 62-59 with 15 seconds left. But Lawrence Westbrook would not let them lose. After a pass from Hoffarber, Westbrook snuck by two Badgers and hit a deep three pointer from the left win with two seconds to tie the game. Marcus Landry had more than enough time to force up a shot after the ensuing inbounds pass, but appeared to not know the score, and simply held the ball. The Gophers had earned their first overtime game of the season.
With the momentum on their side, the Gophers dominated the overtime. They scored the first seven points in the extra period, the first three coming again from Westbrook on a one on three backhanded reverse lay-up in traffic and a free throw. Wisconsin eventually cut the lead to two in the final seconds, but Lawrence Westbrook made all of his four free throws in the last ten seconds to give Minnesota its first win in Madison since the current Gopher players were still in kindergarten.
The Gophers did just enough to win. Even though Wisconsin’s offense was extremely effective in the first half, Minnesota’s multi-faceted defense took its toll in the second half. The Badgers shooting dropped from 50% in the first half to 32% in the second half. The Gophers used their zone defense less than in previous games, but it was still effective, as Wisconsin made only 5-24 three pointers. As usual it was Minnesota’s pressure defense that truly turned the tide. The Badgers came in as the best team in the country at taking care of the ball. They left the Kohl Center with 18 turnovers. Minnesota’s offensive rebounding could have been better. Wisconsin had 14 offensive rebounds, but were only able to turn them into 11 second chance points, the same as the Gophers.
On offense, Minnesota’s best bet is still a steal and a fast break. Give them credit though, as they were able to make enough adjustments to get a win even on a night when nothing seemed to be working. Thanks to Paul Carter and Devron Bostick, the two Gophers most adept at attacking the basket in a half court set, the Gophers shot 48% for the game and 80% in over time. It would have been nice to see the solid screens that created so many open shots against Penn State. In hind sight though, that may have had much more to do with the Nittany Lion defense than the Gopher offense.
It wasn’t the offense or the defense that won the game for the Gophers. There are not statistics for character and heart. In past years the Gophers would have been happy to avoid a blow out. This team is different, and something special. Even after each of their runs were repelled, they just kept cranking away, and they were rewarded in the end. This team was supposed to be a year away. Instead, they are a year early.
Who did what?
- Damian Johnson played only three minutes in the first half after two quick and questionable fouls. His return in the second half sparked the Gophers, and from the twenty minute mark on he played one of his best games of the season. He had 11 points, but more importantly returned to his box score stuffing with five rebounds, an assist, and a block (that should have been three).
- Ralph Sampson could have gotten down on himself with his outside shot not falling. Instead, he moved inside making two left handed hook shots in traffic and a put back. He also added five rebounds and two blocks.
- Colton Iverson scored two points in the early going and then disappeared except for what appeared to be a gun shot wound to the shin in the first half.
- Al Nolen’s offense struggled because he was trying too hard. After a quick five points, he went nearly scoreless finishing with only seven for the game. The intensity that led to his offensive problems also saved the Gophers on the defenseive end. Even though he picked up five fouls, Nolen held Trevon Hughes scoreless and picked up five steals.
- Lawrence Westbrook showed that he has not forgotten how to shoot. He won’t average 40 points per game any time soon, but if the Gophers needed it, and he had the green light, a 40 point game from Westbrook seems possible. He was fearless all night, and the number of defenders was irrelevant and he spun and soared to a career high 29 points on 10-16 shooting. For the first time in years the Gophers have a confident scorer who wants the ball when it counts. So what if he is a bit aloof? He needs to be to do what he did last night.
- Paul Carter’s statistics are impressive enough. He had a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds with a block and two steals. However it was all hustle that saved the Gophers at least twice. If Landry makes a lay-up or Bohannon doesn’t charge into Carter, the Gophers lose.
- Travis Busch looked silly playing defense against Wisconsin’s interior players.
- Devoe Joseph struggled in his first game in Madison. He had 3 rebounds and two turnover in 15 minutes. He also seems to have a falling over problem. Someone get him a new pair of shoes.
- Jonathan Williams looked silly getting his one lay-up shoved back in his face.
- Devron Bostick scored in double digits for the second straight game. His drives to the basket brought the Gophers back from the edge, and it is no longer a mystery how he was the junior college player of the year.
- Blake Hoffarber is officially experiencing a shooting emergency. He missed all five of his shot attempts, all from three point range. Even though his shooting is struggling, he still makes himself valuable enough to see the floor. On Thursday he filled in as the emergency point guard. It wasn’t always pretty but it was enough.
- Jamal-Abu Shamala had three turnovers in seven minutes.