Still holding on!

A ten point half time lead was surprising. A seemingly insurmountable 19 point lead with just over seven minutes left was shocking. The final score, a 62-60 victory for the Gophers was only unexpected because the Gophers won.

Assembly Hall has been a house of horrors for the Gophers for decades. The last win at Illinois came in 1996, a one point win against a mediocre at best Illini squad in Lou Henson’s final game. I don’t remember March of 1996 particularly well. Apparently the country was riveted with the case of Eric and Lyle Menendez, Mad Cow disease fears gripped the British Isles, and the Chechnya-Russia conflict was just heating up. The win didn’t send the Gophers to the NCAA tournament despite the 10-8 conference record, and it didn’t count. You’d have to go all the way back to 1978 for an official victory at Illinois. Back then, Tubby Smith was still a season away from his first game as an assistant with Virginia Commonwealth. So no, a win wasn’t going to be easy, and there would not be a blowout in Assembly Hall.

Big Ten critics must have been thrilled by the 24-14 halftime score. It was everything that so many want to believe the Big Ten is, boring, slow, and full of incompetent offense. No team should have a lead if they score only 24 points in a half, and 14 points in 20 minutes should never keep a team in a game, but this is the Big Ten, where all things are possible. Minnesota’s defense was spectacular statistically, but those statistics were misleading. Illinois couldn’t handle a nearly stationary 2-3 zone. The Gophers just stood there, and so did Illinois, content to shoot rushed three-pointers with the shot clock running out. It was pathetic, really. Even in the most passive days of the Gopher zone offense, they showed more initiative to score.

The Gopher offense wasn’t humming along in the first half, but they did pick their spots well. Eighteen of the first half points came in the paint, with four different players scoring four points and seven different players getting on the board. Six of the 11 Gopher field goals came by way of an assist, many of the spectacular variety leading to opportunities.

The Gopher offense really woke up in the second half in road outburst that Gopher fans haven’t seen since a big win in Iowa City during the opening days of the Big Ten season. The Gophers reeled off a 27 to 15 featuring a lucky buzzer beating corner 3 pointer by Rodney Williams that hit everything before falling in. The shot came  off a whirling dervish of an assist from a completely out of control Lawrence Westbrook. The rally ended on a Williams three point play with the ugliest free throw to fall, maybe ever. If those shots could fall, particularly under those circumstances, the streak had to end? Yes, but not easily of course.

Purdue’s student section has been furiously pushing the slogan “Defense lives here” for most of the season, as if defense is a living creature with an endemic habitat. If The Barnyard were to devote such energy to slogan slinging, the only option would be “No lead is safe.” After the Williams three fell, the wheels fell off the Gophers.

Bruce Weber suddenly remembered that the Gophers were playing without a true point guard, and turned on the full court pressure. For some reason this was the first real effort to pressure Gopher ball handlers since Al Nolen became ineligible, and it won’t be the last until the Gophers learn to dribble. The Gophers committed five turnovers in the final seven minutes, equaling their total over the previous 33 minutes. Turnover woes didn’t figure to be too damaging with Illinois’ still anemic offense, but that too eventually awoke.

Bill Cole is an almost perfect weapon against the zone. He is tall enough at 6’9” to see and shoot over most perimeter defenders, and unlike most his size, he can knock down the three. In the first half he attempted only one shot. In the second he made five three pointers, and nearly brought Illinois all the way back. The Gopher lead didn’t disappear instantly, but instead steadily and excruciatingly slowly. The Gophers crumbled again, and when D.J. Richardson knocked down back to back three pointers to bring the Illini within one point with 1:24 left in the game, the only question remaining was at what point they would break the Gophers’ hearts, again, and how much time the Gophers would have to miss the last shot, again.

But that never happened. The Gophers stopped panicking, perhaps realizing that one more basket would be enough to secure a win. And when Ralph Sampson hit a streaking Paul Carter to put the Gophers up three with 32 seconds left it was enough. Illinois had two more chances, thanks to the Gophers missing three of four free throws in the final 22 seconds. Fourteen or 32 year droughts don’t end easily.

That last win at Illinois wasn’t enough to get the Gophers into the NCAA tournament. They were the first team in conference history (since the expansion of the tournament to 64 teams) to be left home with 10-8 conference record. In a couple weeks the Gophers could very well find themselves in the same position. Michigan is beatable, and Iowa is Iowa. Two more wins and the Gophers will finish above .500 for the first time since 2005 and will have improved their conference win total in each year of the Tubby Smith era. And unlike 1996, they’ll have an opportunity to solidify a spot in the 65 team field during the Big Ten tournament.

All I ask for at the beginning of each basketball season is for things to stay interesting until the very end. February and March are brutal in Minnesota without something to look forward to. Thanks to the Gophers, who we all left for dead a few weeks ago, waiting for spring is going to be pretty fun.

Who did what?

  • Damian Johnson largely disappeared in the second half when the Gophers were desperately in need of some senior leadership. His two made field goals came in the early going. Thankfully, he did pick up a steal that eventually led to the Paul Carter dunk that saved the game for the Gophers.
  • Blake Hoffarber never got on track, making only one of five field goal attempts on the day. He spent the last five minutes of the game on the bench due to his lack of ball handling skills including a travel towards the end of Illinois’ big run. In his defense though, he was thrown to  ground on that travel, just one of several bizarre calls that went Illinois’ way.
  • Lawrence Westbrook is good for clutch free throws even when everything else is falling apart. He knocked down two freebies to stem the tide briefly to stretch Minnesota’s lead back to ten with four minutes left. Exemplifying how shaky the Gophers were against the press, Westbrook became the primary ball handler in the closing minutes, and somehow managed to bring the ball up better than any other Gopher.
  • Devoe Joseph sparked the rally in the second half that gave the Gophers their big lead.  He scored 16 points and made 7-8 free throws. He also managed to not record a single assist and pick up four turnovers. Joseph is still making the mistakes of a freshman point guard, which isn’t so surprising since he rarely had to be the primary ball handler a year ago. Luckily, his mistakes are more a product of lack of experience and not lack of skill, and we may look back in two years, thankful that Joseph had an extra half season at point guard under his belt.
  • Ralph Sampson didn’t follow up his career best game the way he wanted, but his assist to Carter was probably the most important play of the day. His lack of production, only 4 points, was mostly due to lack of opportunity, only 5 shot attempts. The sophomore center needs more touches for the team to jump to the next level.
  • Paul Carter is looking more and more like he’ll be able to step in where Damian Johnson leaves off at the end of the season. He came up with a huge ten points including the most important two, along with four rebounds. The junior forward has been on a tear lately, making 50% or better of his field goal attempts in seven straight games. Not bad for a guy who made only 39% of his two point attempts last season.
  • Colton Iverson only scored four points, and they somehow came when no one on either team could buy a basket. He also picked up three rebounds and avoided turnovers in his 15 minutes of work.
  • Justin Cobbs was steady for 11 of his 12 minutes, but even a freshman knows not to pick up stupid fouls miles away from the basket with the game on the line.
  • Rodney Williams played his best game as a Gopher with eight points and six rebounds in 16 minutes of action. His offense may have a lot to do with luck, but the freshman put himself in position to make a play.