After near misses against Michigan and Michigan State in conference play, it was starting to look like the Gophers would never get over the hump of actually taking down one of the Big Ten’s top teams. Wins over Purdue and Penn State showed that they weren’t at the bottom of the barrel, but without a shiny, big-time win on their resume, Minnesota still appeared to be a middling team. That line of thinking is now officially outdated.
Minnesota used a stifling defense and an impressive interior scoring ability to stymie and disrupt the #11-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, en route to a 63-53 victory at home, and by far the team’s biggest victory of the year. Behind 13 points from Drizzzzy Mathieu and a double-double from Elliott Eliason, the Gophers blocked, stole and shot their way to an impressive win. Even on a night where #Hollinsanity drifeted aimlessly in the background, the rest of the team put together solid performances to keep the Buckeyes off balance and off the scoreboard.
The game was far from a shootout, but Minnesota appeared comfortable in slowing the pace down. Shooting 51% from the field while only going 3-14 from deep, the Gophers uncharacteristically made hay in the paint, and even received 8 points from Oto Osenieks. But the key to the victory was defense as the Gophers racked up 10 steals and forced Ohio State into a horrid night from the field, where the Buckeyes only went 18-51. Unable to put together many clean possessions, Ohio State often looked uncomfortable in the offensive set, generally settling for low percentage shots or contested attempts close to the basket.
But the story of the game was Mathieu and Eliason, who kept the energy level up throughout the night, and brought the crowd into the game with timely baskets. Eliason went 6-8 from the field and stayed out of foul trouble, allowing him to see plenty of action on the court. And even though the Gophers turned the ball over a whopping 18 times (9 in the first 8 minutes of the game), they never let the Buckeyes take control for long stretches, and avoided any sort of lengthy drought, as had become standard in previous games.
Certainly the biggest win of the year, and gives the Gophers some breathing room in the conference. In the middle of perhaps the most brutal stretch of the conference season, Minnesota has now gone 1-1, which included an OT loss to Michigan State on the road. And for a team that wasn’t expected to do much of anything this year, the Gophers are looking more and more like the surprise team of the conference. The excitement is palpable.
- I’ve given up asking how Mathieu “does it.” He’s aggressive but not usually out of control, and shows an amazing ability to get to the hoop and convert. I worried about how his game would translate from JUCO to non-conference to the Big Ten. But all indications at this point are that he’s fully capable of not only contributing, but changing the game.
- Where in God’s name has Austin Hollins gone? His stat line might not look that pitiful, but anyone who watched the game saw that Hollins did not look anything like the double-digit scoring threat we saw earlier this season. And he appears to have lost the ability to handle the ball. He came up with some good steals and a crucial basket down the stretch, but overall his game has gone from steadily reliable to head-scratchingly inconsistent.
- The Gophers were huge on the defensive boards, and we didn’t see the parade of missed rebounds that has accompanied their last few games. Ohio State was denied second chances, which was a problem in previous conference games.
- It’s impossible to overstate how much Eliason has grown on this team, as he’s now perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle. He’s intimidating on defense, knows how to get difficult buckets on offense, and is in the right place at the right time for rebounds. And he’s done a great job of limiting his fouls, which prevented him from seeing maximum minutes and disrupted his game. Here’s hoping he’s fully arrived.