Sandell: Gophers display renewed fight in OT victory over Wisconsin
MINNEAPOLIS -- As soon as his go-ahead and eventual game-winning 3-pointer sailed through the basket in overtime, enthused Gophers guard Andre Hollins blew a kiss to the crowd at Williams Arena.
Although the Gophers' 58-53 victory Thursday against No. 20 Wisconsin didn't become final until three minutes later, Hollins' gesture was one born out of an outpouring of emotion after a gritty second half comeback.
"It was a Valentines Day gift to the fans," Hollins said with a grin after finishing with a game-high 21 points.
The win was also the best Valentines Day gift the Gophers could have received. Losers of six of their previous eights games and on the verge of having their season take another step towards an all-out collapse, the Gophers fought through Wisconsin's infuriating slow-tempo in a less-than-pretty game to snatch a victory at a critical juncture in the season.
There was no glossy sheen to Thursday's game. The missed shots on both sides -- the two teams combined to shoot 34% from the floor (17-of-50) -- resulted in several cringe-worthy moments.
For much of the game's first 40 minutes, Wisconsin aggravated the Gophers, who struggled immensely early on to establish their identity. The Badgers plunged the "U" into a 10-point deficit in the latter minutes of the first half, which against a team like Wisconsin can feel immense. At times early on it seemed Tubby Smith's crew was lacking the energy and edge necessary to avenge a disheartening last-second loss three weeks ago in Madison.
But the Gophers, despite their inefficiencies, didn't allow themselves to fade away when Wisconsin had a chance to cripple them early on. They held the lead for only three minutes in regulation, but their defense kicked in and the key shots fell when they had to have them.
By the end of the second half, Wisconsin had gone five minutes without a basket. Five minutes later, and after a 9-4 showing in the extra session and a kiss from Andre Hollins, the Gophers had completed a 15-4 run to end the game.
That ability to close out games has been a fleeting trait throughout their recent losing slump. For the moment at least, they have rediscovered the edge that could be the difference between this team revitalizing itself for a run in March or dropping back into its familiar ho-hum late-season track.
"We've been giving games away to good teams, and killing ourselves offensively and defensively," Hollins said. "A win tonight is huge for us."
At 6-6 in the Big Ten with six games to go, the Gophers now own the best conference record they have had at this juncture in a season since 2008-09 when they started Big Ten play 7-5.
Wisconsin appeared to have shut down the Gophers' chances at a rejuvenating win when "U" guard and the team's second-leading scorer Austin Hollins was called on a questionable charging foul with 22 seconds left in regulation.
However, it was the Badgers who ultimately made the fatal miscue. Wisconsin forward Mike Bruesewitz shifted his feet on the ensuing in-bounds play, forgetting that it had come after a turnover and not a made basket.
Just like that, the Gophers had another opening.
While their initial play broke down, guard Joe Coleman, who had been wrought with problems offensively for much of the game, drew a key foul on a drive to the basket. It left him with two shots to keep the Gophers alive.
"The play we designed didn't really go as we wanted, so I saw the lane open. I just had to make the drive," Coleman said. "When it came to those clutch free throws, I knew in my head that I had put in all the work in, so I've got to make them."
Both attempts fluttered through, sending a surge of energy through the Gophers that Wisconsin couldn't match in overtime.
In the locker room afterwards, the sound of Ke$ha's hit song "Die Young" pulsed through the walls as the Gophers jumped around in celebration -- a slight jab by the Gophers at their Wisconsin rival, which had danced to the same song on the court after its remarkable win against Michigan five days earlier.
"We were kind of mocking them a little bit, but that's the spirit of a rivalry game. We're just happy to get a win and have the positivity back in the locker room again," senior forward Rodney Williams said.
The carefree post-game atmosphere was a refreshing sight. Thursday's win was big for the Gophers, but it has to be taken in context. This was a team, though it has stayed notably positive through its struggles, that had to find relief before the losses continued to build into a mental block that could be too much to overcome.
While Smith took a bit of a sly shot at the recent onslaught of criticism his program has faced, he admitted that the win came at a crucial time.
"The sky was falling around here," Smith said. "Sometimes when the sky is falling and you're laying under ceiling you think it's going to cave in on you. (Wisconsin) wanted it, but we had to have it. That was the key tonight."
"I didn't think the season was in that dire straits to start with, but I think it will be a big boost for us ... We're not a dog by any means."
There is too much history of missed opportunities surrounding this Smith's team to say that the Wisconsin victory is a clear sign of the turnaround the Gophers need to bolster themselves for the final stretch of the season. However, with difficult road match-ups with Iowa and Ohio State coming up, it is the buffer that could keep them from stumbling through their last six games and on into the Big Ten tournament.