Sing it with me now:
The strange thing about young teams is that they rarely react as expected, and the Gophers are no exception. They couldn’t manage to hold off the Hawkeyes at home, came out flat in a blow out to Purdue. The season was over, the program was in shambles. There were no obvious wins anywhere on the schedule. Then something clicked.
This may have just been a fluke. We’ll find out how the team handles success. It is unquestionably a huge win though. The Gophers had lost 46 road games in a row against ranked teams. They hadn’t beaten a top 10 team on the road since 1981. I wasn’t even alive then. It would be another 7 years until I would attend my first Gopher basketball game. A whole generation of fans has never experienced a win like this.
To beat a top ten, especially on the road, close to a perfect game is needed. The Gophers didn’t quite get that. The missed free-throws down the stretch should have caused every Gopher fan to have flash backs: the second half melt-down against Michigan, Burleson throwing the ball away against Illinois, seemingly ever game after Al Nolen was hurt last season. For every mistake they made, the Gophers had an answer. Ralph Sampson and Elliott Elliason hit clutch 15 footers. Joe Coleman, with ice in his veins, nailed four free-throws in the last minutes of the game. Minnesota’s execution wasn’t just good in the final minutes, but it was a sustained, consistent effort that brought home the victory.
The Gophers held the best three-point shooting team in the country, potentially the best three-point shooting team in the last ten years, to 4-18 shooting. This from a Gopher team that had previously been torched possession after possession, game after game at the three-point line. The Gophers nailed just enough of their own three-pointers, limited Indiana’s transition baskets, and won the battle of the boards.
Every Gopher did what they needed to do to help the team win. Austin Hollins came alive for a career high 18 points on 7-10 shooting. Julian Welch kept the team under control, even if I don’t want him in the building if there are free-throws at the end of a close game. Ralph Sampson III didn’t get many offensive opportunities, but rebounded well, had several nice passes and a clutch basket that stemmed a late Indiana run. Rodney Williams continued to be assertive despite foul trouble. Chip was Chip, without being too Chip. Oto Osenieks added a clutch jumper. Maverick scored seven quick points off the bench and played generally under control. He also made free-throws, which can never be overlooked in a one possession victory. His textbook defense on Christian Watford’s last ditch three-point attempt was a welcome departure from his typical technique. Elliason used his size to disrupt the final in bounds pass. Even Andre Hollins, battling whatever mystery disease is going around, made a three-pointer in his few minutes on the court.
The Gophers were in desperate need of a confidence boost. Losing another late lead could have devastated the team and crushed their confidence the rest of the season. Winning a big game, especially in dramatic fashion, by no means guarantees the Gophers will use it as spring-board heading into a couple winnable basketball games, but certainly could. I’ve referenced Michigan’s season a handful of times when writing about my expectations for Minnesota this season. That extremely young team started 1-6 in the Big Ten, then something clicked for them. They made the NCAA tournament, won a game in the tournament, and are now well on their way to a top ten ranking. They didn’t get there with only one win, but they also weren’t prevented from getting there by a slow start at the beginning of the conference season.
The Gophers travel to Happy Valley to play Penn State in a sleepy arena, and then come home to face Northwestern who they have dominated at home in recent years. If they win those two games, they’ll be 3-4 in the Big Ten. It won’t be the record they imagined at the beginning of the season, but it also won’t be an insurmountable mountain to climb either.
Take one step, confident step, at a time.