With five players on the court and in constant motion, so many factors can decide the outcome of a basketball game. Throughout the last five seasons we’ve broken down many of these factors, not limited to match-ups, strategy, specific skills, coaching, etc. What we don’t often break down, because it is too unpredictable, is the human factor. The human factor gave the Gophers a rather miraculous last half-second win over Stanford in their final game in the Battle 4 Atlantis, and gave Stanford a loss that may haunt them on Selection Sunday.
I have no doubt that Stanford has some of the best and brightest student athletes in the country. I also have no doubt that they committed four of the dumbest fouls you’ll see in college basketball this season. No scouting report can prepare a team for out of character bad decisions. Sometimes they just happen. The Cardinals fouled three Golden Gopher three point shooters, and nearly a fourth. There is no such thing as a good foul on a three-point shooter, but some are worse than others. Stanford fouled Maverick Ahanmisi twice after he suckered the defender into leaving his feet, tackled Oto Osenieks as he stumbled into a long two-point attempt, and fouled Andre Hollins in the midst of a last second three-point heave to send him to the line to win the game for the Gophers. Minnesota had 11 extra free-throw attempts due to the bone-headed Stanford fouls. The Gophers made nine of those 11 free-throws. They won by three.
Midway through the second half, the outcome did not appear in doubt. The Gophers jumped out to an 8 point lead as they relentlessly attacked the basket. Then, as they all too often do, they started giving the ball away. A 45-37 lead quickly evaporated into a four point deficit as shots stopped falling both into the basket and into the Gophers hands. Turnovers were once again a big problem for the Gophers, and they left themselves little margin for error with their 17 giveaways. Thanks to stellar defense at key stretches, Stanford only managed 10 points, while the Gophers also scored 10 points off of only 13 turnovers.
Giving away winnable games has become the signature of the Gophers program in recent seasons, though maybe not this season. As they did on Friday, when the let a lead slip away against Memphis, the Gophers once again calmly gathered themselves, took a deep breath, and played solid basketball. Within a minute they took the lead back, and never trailed the rest of the way.
Playing their third game in three days, and two up-tempo games at that, Minnesota’s guards were bound to get tired. Andre Hollins’ 41 points on Friday were also bound take a psychic toll, so they needed someone to step up. Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe, neither of whom played more than 25 minutes against Memphis, combined for 31 points and 16 rebounds to lead their team to victory. Williams was his typical steady self. Mbakwe played his best game since his knee injury last season, rebounding, scoring, and getting defenders in foul trouble. It wasn’t quite the same old Mbakwe. There weren’t any high flying dunks. Instead he used seasoned post-moves, occasionally put the ball on floor, and made a sweet 15 foot jumper. This new Mbakwe might not be as exciting as the pre-injury version of himself. It might be harder to defend.
Three wins into the Bahamas would have likely vaulted the Gophers into the top 10. Instead, they should be ranked just inside the top 25 when the next poll comes out on Monday afternoon. There is no shame in losing to Duke, and without the loss to Duke, they may not have benefited from two character building wins. Adversity is said to build character. The Gophers have faced plenty of adversity in the last several seasons. Now, they have a team with plenty of character.