Donnelly: Gophers inch closer to NCAA tournament with win against Iowa
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MINNEAPOLIS - The Gophers entered Tuesday night's game with Iowa in "must-win" mode. Meaning to have any hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament, they pretty much had to beat Iowa, no two ways about it.
Sure, they could go to Ann Arbor on Saturday and knock off first-place Michigan, in a building where the Gophers routinely turn into Purina Wolverine Chow. But why tempt fate? Winning their final two home games would put them at 8-10 in the conference, matching their record from a year ago when they slipped into the big dance as the Big Ten's seventh team.
No, the clearest path to the Field of 64 (or 68 or however many the NCAA feels like including from year to year) was via home wins over Iowa on Tuesday and Penn State on March 9. Consider the first half of that journey complete after a thrilling 95-89 victory over the Hawkeyes at a packed Williams Arena.
The Gophers did it in a style they prefer to play - up-and-down the court, shooting a season-high 61.2 percent from the floor - but with unexpected sources of offense. Austin Hollins put a disappointing senior season behind him, pouring in a career-high 27 points on 8-of-10 shooting, including four 3-pointers. DeAndre Mathieu chipped in 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Andre Hollins, still limited by a slowly recovering sprained ankle, drained three 3-pointers and scored 14.
But the jaw-dropper of the night was the play of redshirt freshman Charles Buggs. The 6-foot-9 forward had played a grand total of 21 minutes and scored five points this year. On Tuesday, he played 19 minutes and scored 13 points, including 11 in the first half as he provided a spark that helped the Gophers overcome an 11-point deficit. Buggs hit all three of his 3-point attempts and grabbed three rebounds in his out-of-the-blue breakout game.
"He can do some things and you're gonna go, 'Wow,' and he shows you that tonight," head coach Richard Pitino said. "He hasn't played all year and he comes in tonight and hits three 3s. That's him. He provided a lot of great things."
Buggs stepped into the role as the backup power forward behind Joey King, leap-frogging for the time being Oto Osenieks, who has been hobbled with a knee injury. But Pitino said Buggs has earned his playing time and was likely going to play that role on Tuesday regardless of Osenieks' status.
"He comes to work every single day and he's just growing, he's getting better," Pitino said. "We all thought, 'Charles is moving along,' and Oto is going the other way because physically he's hurting a little bit.
"I've always said from Day One with Charles, he's got the best potential of anyone on this team," Pitino added. "He's by no means arrived, he's still got a long way to go, but I'm excited about what he did tonight."
For a while, Buggs was the only player keeping the Gophers in the game. After his first 3-pointer tied the score at 19, Iowa rattled off a 13-2 run before Buggs hit another 3-pointer to start the Gophers' comeback. Oh, and Minnesota's two points in that run? From a Buggs jump shot, naturally.
"He was a huge spark. When we were struggling to score, he was making big shots," Mathieu said. "That really helps - guys weren't expecting Charles Buggs to come off the bench and just go off. They were keying on guys like me, Austin and Dre, guys like that, and Buggs comes in and gives a spark and that really helps. It frees us up a little more."
And that's exactly what it did. Austin Hollins hit consecutive 3-pointers as he and Iowa's Roy Devyn Marble matched shots throughout the first half. A fastbreak layup gave Hollins eight points in a 70-second span and forced an Iowa timeout as the Hawkeyes' lead had shrunk to two.
Minnesota finally pulled ahead when Andre Hollins buried one of the Gophers' nine first-half 3-pointers with 3 minutes, 38 seconds to go before the break. Two more bombs from Austin Hollins and Buggs stretched Minnesota's lead to 10 before Marble scored the last six of the half, giving him 19 and pulling Iowa to within 51-47 at the half.
That's right, the Gophers scored 51 points in the first half, after scoring 49 and 46 respectively in losses to Illinois and Ohio State last week. The hot start certainly helped them regain their offensive mojo, but Austin Hollins said he saw good signs during a hard practice on Sunday, one day after they blew a double-digit lead in Columbus.
"I think it's huge, mentally," Hollins said. "We've really been stressing to stay positive, to stay confident. We had a couple losses back-to-back and it's tough. It's tough when you're losing to get out of the slump. But we had a practice on Sunday and it was great. Guys didn't let that affect them. They were really motivated to work and get better and come out here and get this win."
The Gophers led the second half from wire to wire, though not without a few tense moments. After their lead ballooned to 13 with 8 minutes, 23 seconds to play, Minnesota didn't hit another shot from the floor. Iowa scored nine straight points and eventually whittled the lead to just two with a minute and a half to play.
But the Gophers closed the game out at the line. They hit 13 of 14 free throws in the last 70 seconds to keep the Hawkeyes at arm's length, giving Minnesota another resume-building victory it hopes will overcome dismal home-court losses to Illinois and Northwestern.
As for that path to the NCAA Tournament? Don't expect Pitino to shed much light on his hopes for his first Gophers squad.
"I don't have any expectations." Pitino said. "My expectations were to play great tonight and we did. My expectations are tomorrow to get better as a team, learn from the mistakes we've made, hopefully we do that and we'll continue from there. But I don't have any long-term expectations.
"I didn't take this job and make the NCAA Tournament our goal. I hope we make it, but if we don't I'm not looking at this as an unsuccessful season. I'm proud of what they've showed so far."