“We all jumped together,” point guard Devoe Joseph said. “I think we might have damaged the couch in there.”
Damaged would be putting it mildly.
“We did break the couch,” shooting guard Lawrence Westbrook confirmed. “We were excited to see our name.”
“I honestly had no clue,” said Joseph, who made the All-Tournament team. “I didn’t want to jinx it and say that we were out or whatever. I was just praying that we were in…. It’s been my dream since I was younger to play in the NCAA tournament,” he said. “Once I saw our name come up, I was super happy. It’s the same thing as last year. Maybe better this time.””
The Gophers may have run out of gas halfway through the second half in their blow out loss to the Buckeyes, but they achieved something as close to impossible as any Minnesota team has in the last two decades. Out of almost nowhere, the Gophers have earned just the third back to back trip to the NCAA tournament in school history.
Heading into Thursday’s game against Penn State, the chattering class was picking the Nittany Lions to knock off the Gophers and to have another shot at Michigan State whom they nearly upset days earlier. Instead of succumbing to an upset minded last place team, the Gophers blew them out of the water, winning by 21 points behind 58% shooting. It was their second best offensive performance of the season, scoring 1.3 points per possession. Colton Iverson didn’t miss a shot, scoring 12 points in only 16 minutes. All those naysayers were suddenly quiet. Beating Penn State was merely the beginning, and because of their poor record, wasn’t going to secure an NCAA tournament bid.
The Gophers hadn’t beaten Michigan State since 2006, when the Spartans had what for them was a down year. Prior to that, they beat another “down” Spartans team in 2003. That is just two wins in seven years, with none against a “good” Michigan State team. The Gophers would need to beat one of the co-Big Ten champions, and they did just that. Even though they gave up a ten point lead, they bounced back in overtime and put the throttle to the floor. Devoe Joseph came up huge in overtime with two long three pointers, and once again Colton Iverson dominated in the paint with 12 points, out scoring the Big Ten sixth man of the year. Two wins in 48 hours had exceeded expectations, but the Gophers still weren’t satisfied.
Minnesota wasn’t just playing for their NCAA tournament lives this weekend, they were playing for the respect that they thought they deserved. Iowa had more players than the Gophers on the All Big Ten Honorable Mention team, despite the obvious discrepancy in talent on the court. Despite being the Big Ten’s most versatile defender, and being the only player in the conference to be in the top three in blocks and steals, Damian Johnson was left off the all defensive team and Chris Kramer “earned” the title of defensive player of the year. They had a chip on their shoulder.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Chris Kramer’s team, the Purdue Boilermakers, would face the full force of the Gophers’ frustration. The degree of the dismantling was shocking. Purdue certainly didn’t play well, but they would have still easily beat a full strength Boilermaker team. This was just their day. Holding the number six team in the nation to 11 first half points may have never been done before. The lead was as big as 28 in the first half and 32 late in the game. Purdue’s leading scorer, E’twaun Moore, scored two points. Punt returner and occasional point guard Bryant Allen scored three points. Colton Iverson was in double figures again, along with Ralph Sampson III and Devoe Joseph.
For 27 minutes on Sunday it looked like the Gophers had a chance to pull off the unthinkable, if the previous few days hadn’t been unthinkable enough. Then the wheels, or more accurately the legs, fell off. Ohio State ran the Gophers off the court. Minnesota might not have been able to beat the Buckeyes on a neutral court anyway, and they certainly weren’t going to be able to in their fourth game in four days.
Less than two weeks ago the Gophers dropped out of the NCAA tournament conversation. Tonight they are an 11 seed playing six hours from home. It has been a magical March, and it isn’t over yet.