After an up-and-down week that saw the Gophers continue their mid-season turnaround against Illinois before throwing much of it away in a loss to Iowa, Minnesota rebounded to take home a road victory against Nebraska, walking away with a 69-61 victory in Lincoln.
The Gophers came into the game desperately needing a victory to keep their tournament hopes alive. Wednesday’s loss to Iowa set the team back, given that it was a “should-win” game. Nebraska was another, and with Minnesota needing all the wins it can get in the conference against inferior competition, the prospect of taking another one on the chin against a team like Nebraska was almost too much to handle.
The biggest story of the game was Chip Armelin, who racked up a career-high 15 points and fueled a strong second half for Minnesota. Armelin broke down the Huskers with strong takes to the basket and nifty maneuvers, including a between-the-legs assist during a Gopher possession in transition. Armelin, like he is wont to do, brought a unique level of energy to the floor in the second half, after a very stagnant and boring showing from the team in the first. As the Big Ten Network guys said after the game, when Chip comes onto the floor something always happens. Sometimes good, sometimes bad.
The bench combined for 40 points and outscored the Nebraska bench 40-7, which was key to the victory. Five bench players scored four points or more and, as a whole, committed only three turnovers. During a game where the starters were relatively quiet, having the bench step up was an impressive sight. In fact, Julian Welch was the only starter to score in double figures, with Ralph Sampson, Rodney Williams, Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman only combining for 21 points.
The Gophers came out a big stagnant, but managed to hold the Huskers in check despite their own offensive shortcomings. The second half was a different story, however, and the team jumped out to a 10-point lead with eight minutes left in the game. Against Iowa, the same lead that late in the game was not safe, and it looked all too familiar against Nebraska. Instead of letting the Huskers back in the game, however, the Gophers put their foot down and squashed any prospect of a comeback.
It was something that we haven’t seen much of this season – Minnesota taking a late-game lead and holding onto it with authority. In fact, given that the team was in almost the exact same scenario not more than four days prior, daydreams of the Huskers clawing back into the game flashed in front of my eyes for quite a bit. But the Gophers showed poise and confidence, and used strong defense to give Nebraska fits and prevent any sort of late-game flow.
With the win, Minnesota moves to 5-6 in the conference and heads home to host four of its next five games. We all know how hard it is to take home a victory on the road in the Big Ten, and even though the Gophers are playing stiff competition, it’s not out of the question to anticipate they they’ll be able to steal one against Wisconsin, Ohio State or Michigan State. In fact, some might argue that the Gophers might even be favored against the Badgers in what may very well be the biggest game of the year come Thursday.
Overall, it’s nice to see the Gophers take care of business against a team they should have had no trouble beating. It’s also nice to see them take home a road victory, given that road games are hard to steal, even against the bottom tier of the conference. Minnesota has a very tough end to the season, so they’ll take a boost in confidence regardless of who offers it.