The Gophers faced the prospect of starting the conference season a nightmarish 1-4, but on a night when neither JaJuan Johnson or Blake Hoffarber could seemingly miss, Minnesota outlasted Purdue 70-67 and saved their season from spiraling out of control.
In the most exciting game since the North Carolina upset (which is looking less and less like an upset as the season goes on), the Gophers ran with the Boilermakers and kept their aerial threat in check while using Hoffarber’s 26 points to kick start the offense.
It seemed like the game would be run completely in transition based on the play of the first half. Both teams got out and ran, racking up 81 points before the intermission. The Gophers looked incredibly comfortable running and gunning, which should come as no surprise considering how UNcomfortable they look when they are in the half-court set. In fact, the Gophers owned the offensive battle in the first half, but couldn’t find an answer for Johnson, who put up 18 of the team’s 40 first half points.
The second half slowed down a bit, but the Gophers found themselves up eight, not more than five minutes into the half, with Hoffarber going to the line to cash in on an and-one. After Hoffarber bricked the free throw, however, Purdue went on a 9-0 run to take back the lead and send the Gophers reeling. With 9:25 left in the game and Purdue owning a four-point lead, it wasn’t clear how the Gophers would respond. Would they fold under pressure like they did countless times last year, or would they take the comeback as a challenge and face up to the opponent like we’ve seen them do more often this year?
The answer was the latter as Minnesota locked down the defense and picked away at the lead ever so slightly. It wasn’t pretty by any means, and the Gophers didn’t have the smoothest comeback of all time, but they focused on denying Purdue the opportunity to score while they did their business on the other end. In fact, Purdue only scored six points in the final nine and a half minutes as the Gophers turned it around.
The turnaround was capped off by an Al Nolen three with 3:17 left in the game, and ended up being the final points scored by either team. The final three minutes were marred by missed shots and turnovers by both teams until a thrilling final 26 seconds that saw Purdue miss its final two chances to tie the game. Though they were impaled on the defensive glass (Purdue pulled down 15 offensive rebounds), Minnesota took care of the ball on offense and shot terrifically from the field. For the game, the team committed only eight turnovers and shot 52%, though they lost the rebounding battle 34-24.
JaJuan Johnson and Blake Hoffarber were the stories of the night. For most of the game, but especially the first half, Minnesota had absolutely no answer for Johnson, who was having his way down low. He was kept in check somewhat in the second half (if you call 11 points “in check”) but still was a factor. However, Minnesota completely took him out of the game in the final 10 minutes, which went a long ways towards their comeback as he only scored two points on a pair of free throws.
Hoffarber had perhaps the best conference game of his career, which was extra special since it came on a night when the Gophers desperately needed him. His 26 points led the team and his timely three pointers came at crucial times that allowed the Gophers to stay in the game. On top of that, he was successful at getting in closer to the basket to score, ending 10-15 from the field. Purdue figured it out eventually and barely let Hoffarber touch the ball in the latter part of the second half, but the damage had really already been done.
E’Twaun Moore, Purdue’s other offensive powerhouse was held in check by Rodney Williams throughout the game, and was frustrated in a 2-14 performance. Averaging 18.8ppg before the game, Moore was locked down by Williams and was given very few clean looks. An understated part of the game, Williams’ performance in the game may have saved the Gophers from a loss, and they like would not have been able to weather big games from both Moore and Johnson.
This particular game was the most important game of the season to this point. The Gophers found themselves in desperate need of a win over a conference powerhouse to not only show everyone else they were capable of doing it, but to show themselves that they could get it done. After three close calls on the road against the Big Ten’s best teams, it was unclear whether or not Minnesota was capable of actually taking down one of the top teams in the conference. They’d had near misses, but until they actually pulled off the win, no one was quite sure just what the Gophers were capable of. The win over Purdue showed that the close calls we saw against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State were not just mirages. This team is here to compete and hang with the big boys.
Who did what:
- Trevor Mbakwe had a relatively subdued game in that he did not have a double-double. He was there on the defensive end with 10 rebounds and scored seven points in 31 minutes off the bench – a penalty for his recent Facebook message fiasco. Not as big of a night as he’s had in the past, and he also didn’t do much to help stop JaJuan Johnson.
- Blake Hoffarber’s contribution to the game has already been expanded upon, but it’s worth reiterating that he was the star of the game, putting up 26 points on 10-15 shooting including 4-6 from behind the arc. Scoring when the team needed it the most and quelling Purdue runs, Hoffarber went a long ways towards keeping the team in the game and inspiring confidence.
- Al Nolen was a defensive force for the entire game, but was an offensive liability for a five-minute stretch in which he did nothing but drive the lane and throw the ball up. Not to take anything away from Nolen, because he hit the game-winning three-pointer, dished out eight assists and was solid from the line, but there was a stretch there where he just left you scratching your head based on his decisions. He would get fed up with a stagnant offense and then pound the lane hoping for something to happen. While I like Nolen driving the lane at times, it’s not in his nature to force things when they aren’t there. Nolen finished with 13 points on 3-9 shooting.
- Rodney Williams did his best Al Nolen impression, locking down E’Twaun Moore and saving the Gophers from his offensive wrath. He also had a huge block in crunch time that kept the Boilermakers from trimming the Minnesota lead to one. His defense far outweighed his offensive contribution, which was six points, but to see Williams with such a great defensive contribution was encouraging. With his length and speed he can cause defensive mismatches for just about any team.
- Ralph Sampson III picked up six points on 3-7 shooting to cement another mediocre offensive performance. However, he did a good job locking down JaJuan Johnson in the final 10 minutes of the game to keep Purdue from coming back, which was no small task. Sampson continues to earn his playing time on the defensive end, which can’t be understated. It would just be nice to see him put something together in the post. Ah, pipe dreams…
- Colton Iverson got the start in place of Trevor Mbakwe and made his presence known scoring six points in the first half and finishing with two boards and two block. Iverson didn’t fall victim to his usual rock hands and played the role of solid, unspectacular bench player.
Photo courtesy of Brian Peterson, Star Tribune