Sandell: Aggressive, versatile game plan powers Gophers past UCLA
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AUSTIN, Texas -- The Gophers were down to their final opportunity.
A loss and an early NCAA tournament exit would have officially branded embattled coach Tubby Smith and his team as a bust, and tag a bitter conclusion on a season of lost chances.
That was far from what transpired Friday night at the Frank Erwin Center.
Sticking to an aggressive, physical game plan, the No. 11-seed Gophers fiercely outplayed No. 6 UCLA for the bulk of 40 minutes to rumble to their first NCAA tournament win, 83-63, since 1997, and first non-vacated tourney victory in more than two decades.
The Gophers have been a confounding team to predict. And after stumbling to Austin on a three-game losing streak, there was little doubting that the Gophers' vitality was being widely questioned, regardless of what the Las Vegas odds said.
But in the biggest moment of a potentially still salvageable season, Minnesota responded with an impressively effective performance in the vain of the signature victories - Indiana and Michigan State -- that helped Smith's up-and-down squad get to this point in the first place.
The Gophers didn't play like a team overwhelmed by the pressure to make up for a 5-11 finish to the season. They were zeroed in, but loose from the get-go -- a trait that started to be noticed in practice on Thursday.
Senior forward Trevor Mbakwe, who finished with nine points and 12 rebounds, embodied the Gophers' surge of emotions.
"I feel good. I feel young. I feel like a 21-year-old right now," Mbakwe, his team's elder statesman at 24.
A hard-to-watch, sluggish opening few minutes gave way to a game that was dictated almost entirely by the Gophers. UCLA, which entered under its own veil of heavy scrutiny, eventually allowed itself to be molded and shaped by its opponent.
The Gophers capitalized when they saw the opening to wear down the Bruins, who couldn't shake a suddenly fragile identity.
Stuck in a Big Ten style 4-4 tie six minutes into the game, UCLA traded blows with the Gophers until the Bruins moved out front 15-14. UCLA never led again.
"The first half in particular was tough for us," Bruins coach Ben Howland said. "... And we really struggled just attacking the zone and knocking down some open looks when we had a chance ... I thought that early we were a little tight, and I thought that probably affected our guys a little bit just thinking back to how the game unfolded."
Down by one, junior guard Austin Hollins nailed a 3-pointer, followed less than 30 seconds later by one from point guard Andre Hollins. By halftime, thanks to a 19-4 run, the Gophers had UCLA behind 35-25.
It was the one, two punch from the Hollins duo that was at the foundation of the Gophers' output offensively.
Minnesota has been at its best this season when Austin and Andre Hollins produce quality scoring from out near or out on the perimeter. With their outside scoring in place, the Gophers' offense can stay in drive-mode and their defense can control the game's tempo.
They received that against UCLA.
Andre Hollins took to the forefront. The sophomore guard scored 23 of his game-high 28 points in the second half -- a key in staving off what proved to be the Bruins' last-ditch comeback attempt. Austin combined with Andre to knock in all nine of their team's 3-pointers at 56.3% clip (9-of-16).
Overall, the Gophers shot almost a full 20% better than UCLA from the floor - 50.8% (31-of-61) to 31.7% (20-of-63).
UCLA drew within five points in the first five minutes of the second half. The Gophers were lagging, trying to maintain the rhythm garnered before the break. It was a juncture that could have severed their momentum, and sent them down a familiar path of second half letdowns.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Andre Hollins drove them in the other direction.
"After I hit those threes, it relieved the pressure a little bit from us, and then from then on we picked up the defensive intensity," Hollins said. "Austin and I hit shots and (sophomore guard) Joe Coleman, he played well. So we made shots tonight and that was the big difference."
In the aftermath of Hollins' key shots, the Bruins watched their season, and possibly their coach's job, fade into the obscurity of a 20-point loss. The Gophers' lead reached 23 points near the second half's four-minute mark, causing the large pockets of UCLA fans in attendance to break off for an early exit.
UCLA was close to an all-out train wreck at times, but the Gophers were deserving of praise in their ability to set the Burins' downward spiral in motion.
For all the criticism Smith has faced for much of the season, most of which he has been well deserving of, Minnesota responded with one of its best-coached games of the season.
On several occasions, the Gophers have derailed when trying to make in-game adjustments. But on Friday the slight tweaks made as the night progressed resulted in allowing a solid game plan to work at a high-rate.
UCLA enjoys working its potent offense in transition and avoiding getting engaged in a physically defensive game. The Gophers countered by playing 11 guys to UCLA's seven, and locking the Bruins into an aggressive slugfest.
The "U" players said they hadn't plan on relying on a zone defense, but after an early adjustment they stuck with a pressure zone for the majority of the evening.
"Predominantly we're a man-to-man team, but I think once we were able to make shots and they weren't able to score, we just stayed in it longer than expected," Mbakwe said. "We didn't practice that as much, but it worked to our benefit tonight."
UCLA's freshman star Shabazz Muhammad went 0-for-7 from the floor in the first half before hitting six in the final 20 minutes to finish with 20 points. But his late outburst was nowhere near enough.
Bruins forward Travis Wear found himself in early foul trouble, and fellow big man was close behind with four fouls of his own with not even seven minutes gone in the second half. That allowed the Gophers to render further control of the game.
To the Bruins' credit, they outdid the Gophers rebounding-wise, holding a 42-36 advantage, but it didn't matter.
Despite a few scattered miscues, Minnesota kept its turnover woes in check (11). The Gophers are now 7-2 this season when turning the ball over 11 times or less.
One win in the NCAA tournament doesn't erase the glaring issues that the Gophers have experienced in last two months, nor does it guarantee that Smith has been relinquished for the moment of his place on the proverbial hot seat.
The Gophers have undergone a positive identity reversal of this nature countless times this, and in those instance they have not been able to maintain the forward momentum gained for prolonged periods. But their showing on Friday was another glimpse at the potential danger they can pose when the main facets of their game are clicking.
Step one has been passed. The more challenging test awaits them Sunday, when they meet No. 3 seed Florida with a chance to make their fifth all-time Sweet-16 appearance at stake.