Sandell: For a moment, Gophers find lost 'edge' in upset of Indiana
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The game clock had barely expired when senior forward Rodney Williams and his teammates were enveloped at center court by the onslaught of fans climbing up onto the raised Williams Arena floor to greet them.
Williams, caught in a celebratory pile with fellow senior Trevor Mbakwe and several others, had trouble getting back on to his feet, but at that point it didn't matter.
The Gophers, a team caught in a losing slump that was threatening to completely derail its season, had just put together one of the program's most noteworthy victories since the Clem Haskins era of the 1990s.
Six days after their eighth loss in 11 games, a 71-45 thrashing at Ohio State, the Gophers reemerged in stunning fashion on Tuesday evening by taking down No. 1 Indiana in a thrilling back-and-forth 77-73 win.
Mbakwe tormented the Hoosiers in the paint, rising to the forefront for the Gophers to produce a game-high 21 points and 12 rebounds.
A swarm of security guard lined up in front of the student section as the Gophers tried to hold on to their lead in the game's final minutes. The security wall attempted to keep the building masses at bay, but the guards gave way as soon as sophomore Andre Hollins picked off Indiana's last-ditch cross-court heave.
"When Trevor was shooting free throws at the end we were all like, 'Oh, they're getting ready for us,'" said Hollins, who bounced back from a poor first half with 12 points in the last nine minutes. "We just saw the fans lining up across the baseline. It was just one of those feelings you will never forget."
In seconds, the court became a blur of maroon and gold.
It had been 24 years since the Gophers last defeated the nation's top ranked team -- Illinois, Jan. 26, 1989 -- and the first time in over a decade since Williams Arena had witnessed a court-rushing frenzy.
When Williams finally was able to stand up amid the swarm, a family member had found him and handed over his two-year-old daughter Suriyah. After a quick high-five and a kiss, both dad and daughter stood there for moment, taking in a scene that had developed into a far-fetched possibility in recent weeks.
"We lost pretty bad to two teams (Iowa and Ohio State) we felt like we should have beat. For us to come out the way we did, for (the crowd) to finally have a chance to rush the court ... It was a special moment for us," Williams said.
Prior to tip-off against Indiana, the Gophers' situation was looking exceedingly desperate. They were coming off back-to-back blowout losses that were glaringly devoid of energy and the fight needed to snag a road victory. Although not yet on the NCAA tournament bubble, the Gophers were surrounded by fierce speculation that they had checked out for the year.
On Monday after practice, Smith and the players were short on answers, knowing that the only true way to save their season was to translate all the off-court talk to game-time situations.
After the fans had filtered out of the arena, and the debris was cleared from the court, the Gophers were left with the answer they wanted most. While one upset, albeit a crucial one, does not excuse them for the mess they created in the last month, the Gophers delivered a message Tuesday that they are not ready to be counted out yet.
It was a shocking reversal.
Following two games of watching his team take on a lifeless state, Smith proclaimed Monday that the Gophers had to start playing "angry" and with a "sense of urgency."
He got what he asked for.
"That's the best I've seen them (play)," Smith said.
"We do need to play with more of a sense of urgency and play with a little edge. And I think tonight Trevor set that tone for us. I think people picked up on it, other players picked up on it and played harder, played smarter."
The key weaknesses that have hindered the Gophers all season were momentarily set aside.
The biggest difference, and a primary reason they were able to overcome the Hoosiers in the second half, came from the level of control and resiliency they established early on.
As the Big Ten's most turnover prone team, the Gophers had coughed up the ball 41 times in the last two games. In all but two of their nine losses this season they committed 13 or more turnovers. On Tuesday, they kept their total to just 10.
Getting the ball inside consistently has been a struggle, but it didn't seem that way as Mbakwe tore through the paint for one of several dunks. The Gophers outscored Indiana inside 40-22.
With Mbakwe establishing himself as a force on both ends of the court, Indiana star Cody Zeller found it hard to make a dent in the game. The Gophers held the Hoosiers big man and future NBA lottery pick in check, limiting him to only two points in the first half and nine overall.
While Mbakwe played the role of catalyst, the Gophers received critical contributions from a pair of unlikely sources. Minnesota's bench has shifted between ineffective and passable for much of Big Ten play. But when the Gophers were on the verge of letting the game slip away in the early goings of the second, reserves Maverick Ahanmisi and Elliott Eliason provided drastic relief.
Indiana had opened its biggest lead of the night, going up by eight with under 14 minutes to go. However, Ahanmisi hit a 3-pointer, which was only the Gophers' second at the time. Eliason then went on to score seven straight points inside.
By the eight-minute mark, the Gophers had retaken the lead. The momentum had shifted and the charged atmosphere inside the sold-out arena continued to build as the minutes ticked down. From that point on, Indiana held the lead again only once more. That lasted for just three seconds.
But for all the pomp and circumstance that took place following the historic upset victory, there is still a lingering cloud of suspicion trailing the Gophers.
Can this truly be the win that rejuvenates the wayward team?
Despite the damage that had been inflicted in prior games to the Gophers' psyche, Smith said he noticed a change in the way his players were carrying themselves before taking the court against Indiana.
"I sensed that they were a very calm, matter of fact group of guys tonight," Smith said. "I hadn't really seen that for a while. They weren't really loose, but they were very confident about who they are. It was good to see them having fun, enjoying it."
The Gophers have been down this road before this season. Victories at home against Nebraska and Iowa were supposed to be a buoying force for the team after it had dropped four straight games. They proceeded to lose consecutive games to Michigan State and Illinois.
When the Gophers upset then No. 20-ranked Wisconsin on Feb. 14, the win was heralded as a potential turnaround game. They seemed refreshed, as the now viral video of Smith and his players dancing to Ke$ha's "Die Young" in the locker room can attest to.
But there was no carryover when they traveled to Iowa City and Columbus, and they staged by far their worst performances of the season.
When asked if beating Indiana injected his squad with the confidence it needs to make a stretch run, Smith was reluctant to give a glowing answer.
"I thought we were pretty confident coming out of the Wisconsin, so I don't want to say too much about that," Smith said. "We really just have to build on this. I've been concerned about the ebb and flow of this group ever since this season started, just playing hard, play smart, but play with some balance and not to get too excited."
If the Gophers are to grab a surge of momentum and get to the Big Ten tournament on a high note, this is the point where it has to take place. At 7-8 in the Big Ten, the Gophers still have an opportunity in games against Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue to finish the year with a winning conference record - something a Smith-led team has not done in his six years with the program.
There will continue to be a reluctance to buy back into this team until the Gophers prove they can consistently play with the same fierce competitiveness they displayed against Indiana.
Smith shared his reserved optimism post-game. This time there was no locker room dance party. Instead, he preached to his team that it has to keep its emotions in check and remember the season has not yet reached the moments that matter most.
"That's what happened (after Wisconsin)," Smith said. "That's what happens sometimes. You have a false sense of accomplishment. I was more matter of fact. I said, 'Hey, we need to get ready for tomorrow. We have practice tomorrow.'"