Tuesday evening at Williams Arena was an example of what the Minnesota Golden Gophers can do when all the pieces are working together.
It’s the team that has been talked about, but also the team that had disappeared in recent weeks.
Before Tuesday’s upset victory over the No. 1 team in the country, Minnesota was on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. But the win essentially secures the team a spot in the tournament that’s scheduled to start on March 19.
Minnesota’s slump started with the loss at Indiana on Jan. 12 but fans can only hope it ended Tuesday as the Gophers start the final stretch of the regular season with three games remaining against Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue.
In the victory over the top team in the country, Minnesota scored more than 70 points for the first time since the Gophers lost to Michigan on Jan. 17.
The 47 points scored by Minnesota in the second half was also more than the Gophers had scored in two Big Ten games this season, including the loss at Ohio State last week.
The signature victory against the Hoosiers will surely carry its own weight when Selection Sunday rolls around in three weeks, and given Minnesota’s difficulty of schedule, the toughest in the country, and also wins against Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State and Memphis, the Gophers can breathe a little easier heading into the final leg of their journey with a seed in the Big Dance more or less locked away.
The Gophers chose the right time to get their act together after losing seven out of their last ten and dropping out of the AP Top 25. And while it’s unlikely Minnesota will return to a Top 15 ranking next week, at least the Gophers know they won’t have to play in the NIT this year.
No one is more happy about that than sixth-year senior Trevor Mbakwe, who tweeted earlier in the season that he would pay back his scholarship if the Gophers don’t make the NCAA Tournament.
The stat-line he put up Tuesday was from a veteran player that knew the importance of recording one last signature victory before the playoffs. His performance in the first ten minutes sparked the rest of his team and carried them through the remaining thirty minutes of play.
Mbakwe’s defense on future first-round draft pick Cody Zeller even inspired back-up center Elliot Eliason who scored a season-high seven points and was seen chugging down the court, chasing Zeller on transition plays that certainly affected the Hoosiers’ offensive plan.
And despite a good shooting day for Jordan Hulls, who made 5-of-7 of his shots from beyond the arch, the Gophers were able to keep him contained in the second half.
With the Big Ten Tournament starting in a little more than two weeks, Tuesday’s win says the Gophers can be a dark horse team to claim the conference title. But Gopher nation will surely be cautiously optimistic about this Gopher squad as the NCAA Tournament creeps around the corner.