A day later and I am still shaking my head. The Gophers had the perfect opportunity to get their season on track with a much needed win over #6 Michigan State, but let a 13 point lead slowly slip away, and eventually lost by one point.
The Gophers did just about everything they needed to do to win. The half court offense, for once, was efficient as the Gophers shot 48% from the floor with only seven points off fast breaks. They got back on defense and allowed the always speedy Spartans to score only 8 fast-break points. They held their own on the boards, allowing only four more offensive rebounds than the Spartans but tying them with 35 total rebounds. Lawrence Westbrook was back to his old self, scoring 16 points. Ralph Sampson secured 9 rebounds, effectively overcoming his greatest weakness and adding 8 points. Devoe Joseph made the most his first start of the conference season with another stellar game, 16 points and 7 assists. It still wasn’t enough.
Minnesota’s game plan couldn’t have been much better. They effectively ran a reverse press, in which all defensive players sprinted down court, and this kept the Spartans from getting easy baskets. And nothing came easy for the Spartans. They shot only 39.3% for the game, but were able to pour it on offensively in the second half with 7-11 from the three point line to overcome an 8 point deficit. Make no mistake, this game was more won by the Spartans than it was lost by the Gophers, but in the last 5 minutes, the Gophers quit taking the game from the Spartans.
Michigan State has dominated the Gophers in recent years. Since Tubby Smith arrived in Minneapolis the Gophers are winless against the Big Ten standard bearers, and Saturday was their first real opportunity to get that elusive first win, and the Gophers played like it. This year’s team has had trouble closing all year. During the final five minutes they seemed to play afraid, trying so hard not to lose another close game that that is exactly what they did. They all but abandoned their offensive strategy that had helped them build their big lead. Lawrence Westbrook and Devoe Joseph stopped coming off screens. The perimeter players stopped dumping the ball inside to Damian Johnson. The Gophers stopped scoring. It became a one on one game, and in one on one situations the Spartans always had an advantage. The Gophers were a better team yesterday. Unfortunately, in the most crucial stretch of the game, the Spartans kept playing as a team and the individual Gopher players weren’t quite good enough.
Even after Michigan State’s furious comeback, the Gophers still had a chance to win, but the dye had already been cast. The Gophers had abandoned the offensive game plan, and it was highly unlikely that it would return. They could have run Joseph or Westbrook off a curl. They could have dumped the ball into Sampson or Johnson who might have at least drawn a foul. Instead it was Westbrook against the world, apparently by design. He drove, created contact, but didn’t draw a foul. There certainly was enough contact for a foul, except in the last seconds of a game that call is rarely made. The Gophers shouldn’t have needed a foul to win anyway.
A win on Saturday would have been a big step towards the NCAA tournament. There is still a path to meaningful post-season basketball, but it is much narrower now, and each remaining game will be more important for their post-season hopes.
Who did what:
- Damian Johnson had one of the better statistical defensive games of his career with five blocks and three steals. Somehow he managed only one rebound though, and just about every coach will tell you rebounds are more important than blocks. The former always causes a change in possession or retains a possession, the latter often results in a second chance.
- Ralph Sampson III played with intensity grabbing a game high ten rebounds and showed a few nice post moves on the way to 8 points. He simply needs more touches, especially when he is playing a shorter team like the Spartans. The Gophers won’t jump to the next level until they get the ball down to the post on every half court set.
- Devoe Joseph looks like a player that can make the Gophers a better team when he is in the game. It just might take some time. The offense was clicking behind his 7 assists and 16 points on only 10 shots. He doesn’t have the defensive abilities of Al Nolen, and it will be imperative for his teammates to learn exactly what he can and can not do defensively in order to make up for his defensive short comings. He isn’t a bad defender, but he isn’t Al Nolen. Nolen rarely if ever would need help hanging with Kalin Lucas. Almost everyone else, Joseph included, does. Lucas scored a game high 22. If he scores one less basket, a likely scenario with Nolen in the game, then it is a whole new season.
- Lawrence Westbrook took it upon himself to get his teammates into the game, and had four assists and only one steal. The Gophers will be much better the rest of the season if he continues to find his teammates. I’d also like to take full credit for his playground basket in which he inbounded the ball off the back of Durrell Summers with three on the shot clock. Actually, everyone but Summers probably saw it coming. Note to Big Ten coaches, always pay attention to a team’s best offensive player with three seconds on the shot clock.
- Blake Hoffarber had his three point shot rim out with the Gophers up 8. It would have been a dagger. Instead it led to a basket by Michigan State. In a one point game there are many deciding plays, and this was one of them. For the game Hoffarber had 7 rebounds and 6 points.
- Paul Carter couldn’t decide between a dunk and a rebound, and he missed what was something in between. It was just another what could have been moment. Carter was the best bench player on Saturday with 6 points and 4 rebounds, and helped get Raymar Morgan in foul trouble (but not quite enough).
- Justin Cobbs wasn’t ready for prime-time, and committed 2 turnovers in 4 minutes of action. He’ll get another chance, and I expect him to play much better. He is the closest thing this team has to Nolen, for better or worse.
- Rodney Williams and Devron Bostick each played an inconsequential 4 minutes.
- Colton Iverson’s minutes will continue to dwindle as long as Sampson plays well. He had 2 points and 3 rebounds in 7 minutes.
- The official time keeper had a rough, rough day. Starting, stopping, and resetting the clock are the only three things he needs to do, and there were some difficulties with all of them.