Between consoling myself over another hard to believe lose from ahead loss and having flashbacks to Frank Williams knocking in a last second floater to end the Gophers NCAA tournament hopes, a Minnesota team was in a must win situation, and did win, in overtime no less.
I can’t begin to explain all the twists and turns that saw the Gophers and Illini each blow what should have been insurmountable leads. This was one of those games that is so intense, so loud, and so excruciating to witness in person that focusing on anything but the immediate action was impractical. So instead, I’ll offer some random thoughts which I’ve managed to assemble since the end of the game.
- We might as well begin with the end of regulation. Austin Hollins managed to send the game to overtime on an old-fashioned three-point play which at first and second glance was one of the worst decisions by a Gopher in recent memory. On third glance, and especially because it worked, it wasn’t quite the worst decision ever. Down three with 12 seconds left, Minnesota was unable to get an open three-point shot. Hollins, a 35% three-point shooter, had the option of forcing a long and contested three-pointer or to attack the basket and hope for the best. The chance of making the three-pointer was about 5%. The ordinary odds of making a lay-up in that situation are about 90%, considering that any well-coached team would be diving out of the way of the driver. Perhaps Hollins noticed that Illini defense was committed to playing defense and that is why he chose to go for the lay-up, or perhaps he got extremely lucky, but the and one sent the game to overtime, sent Meyers Leonard to the bend with five fouls, and gave the Gophers all the momentum they would need to ultimately win.
- There has been some controversy over whether the officials correctly called the foul on the play that sent the game to overtime. They did, without question. Meyers Leonard was caught with his hand in cookie jar, reaching in on a play where the only correct defense was no defense at all. His feet were moving. His arms were out in front of him, and there was contact. Bruce Weber was dismayed that the officials called a “bump,” but when a moving defensive player whose arms are not vertical makes contact with a driving player, it is a foul. It is a foul five seconds into the game or five seconds left in the game. Far too often fans, coaches, and player make the claim that referees should not decide the outcome of a game, but when a free for all ensues in the closing moments in a game and no kind of contact results in a foul, the referees are deciding the outcome of the game.
- I don’t recall a Gopher basketball team with so many hot and cold players. Consistency is always an issue with young teams, and the Gophers are no exception. Last night Austin Hollins absolutely took over the game with a minute left in regulation, scoring the Gophers final six points in regulation and icing the game from the free-throw line. Against Michigan State, he had two points and two turnovers. Add him to the list of players who have shown both good and bad. Good Chip Armelin attacks the basket with abandon and only shoots wide-open shots, like he did Saturday night. Bad Chip acts like the ball is a hand grenade that he needs to shoot before it explodes. Good Ralph Sampson III is engaged, assertively shoots the basketball and hits cutters for easy lay-ups. Bad Ralph moves in slow motion and rebounds with his arms not his body. Good Rodney Williams attacks the basket. Bad Rodney gets lost on the perimeter. Good Julian Welch is a calming presence. Bad Julian is a free-throw missing head-case. This list goes on and on. Unfortunately, whatever “mood” a player is in tends to last the entire game.
- Tubby Smith’s maddening substitution patterns finally paid off, in a big way against Illinois. The Gopher bench players outscored the Ilini bench 39-9 and the Gopher starters 39-38. In most cases I’d rather not see Tubby Smith throw five substitutes on the court at once, especially when he inexplicably pulls the starters when they are playing well. Last night was not one of those games. All five starters were horrible for long stretches of the game, and there was no reason to keep them on the court. The subs played with energy and chemistry that is only developed by playing together in pressure situations. They were ready, and they stepped up.
- The Barnyard and the rest of fans stepped up in a big way too. It was a must win game, and the crowd reacted appropriate to the situation. More importantly, it was a sell out, even though I swore I saw a few empty seats in the corners of the lower deck. If the Gophers keep winning, the occasionally chaotic scenes last night in The Barn will be a calm and soon soothing experience compared to what is to come. The next three home games are Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan. Brace yourselves ladies and gentlemen.
- This is a different, better team with Joe Coleman on the court.
- Andre Hollins sure grew up in one night. He played a career high 24 minutes and had six of his twelve points in overtime, including a Westbrookian three-point play. He was too fast for Illinois’ guards but managed to stay in just enough control to avoid many stupid turnovers. The Gophers have not had a player capable of what Hollins can do for years, and once he harnesses his talent with a dose of maturity, he will be close to unstoppable.
- Winning a must-win game gets the Gophers off the hook for another must-win game for at least a few days. They need to win at Iowa or Nebraska, but they don’t need to win both, though it sure would be nice.