MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — This is what it looks like when a struggling Minnesota team that’s been a colossal flop since January, when it peaked as ninth in the country, beats the No. 1 team in the nation for the first time since 1989 and punches its ticket to the NCAA tournament:
The security guards began to line up at the student section, trying to stop the inevitable court-storming. Players looked toward the crowd and saw their fans inching toward them. With three seconds left on the clock and a 77-73 lead on No. 1 Indiana, Joe Coleman stole the ball and dribbled toward center court. The buzzer sounded. In a flash, thousands of maroon-and-gold-clad fans swallowed up the players.
In the pit, it was tight and really, really hot. Everyone was jumping and banging the players on the heads and backs. One fan jumped up and down and held a giant poster of Dwight Schrute, the character from “The Office.” Trevor Mbakwe, the Golden Gophers’ star of the game for his 21 points, 12 rebounds and defensive manhandling of player-of-the-year candidate Cody Zeller, fell down in the scrum. Then forward Rodney Williams Jr. fell down. Then guard Andre Hollins fell down.
“It was like a domino effect,” Williams said in a jubilant locker room. “When something like that happens, in that kind of moment, you really don’t mind being down on the floor. You’re not really worried about getting injured or anything. The fans were going to make sure nobody got hurt. They were trying to help us up pretty fast.”
That’s how heroes should be treated. They had just beaten the odds-on favorite for the national championship Tuesday night, and they had done it at one of the bleakest times in their season. This Minnesota team had gone 3-8 in its past 11 games, going from a dark-horse contender for the Big Ten championship to a team that hovered near the bubble for the NCAA tournament. Coach Tubby Smith was so concerned about its confidence and inconsistency that he brought in a sports psychologist to talk with the team over the weekend.
And then, in 40 hard-fought minutes, came the catharsis. This was the Minnesota team as advertised earlier in the season. Minnesota couldn’t buy a 3-pointer, going 4-for-20 from the arc, but the Gophers dominated the glass, outrebounding Indiana 23-10 on the offensive end and 44-30 overall. They proved to a national television audience why they’re the nation’s best rebounding team and why the Big Ten is without a doubt the toughest conference this year.
When the catharsis came, in the form of the first court-storming these players had experienced and the first Tubby could remember, it was a sight to behold and to remember, one of those moments that make college basketball such a wonderful game.
“Growing up, watching these college games, you see it all the time,” said Williams, a senior. “You want that to be you. It took four years, but that finally was me. And I said, ‘That’s going to be a moment I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.'”
The national storyline Wednesday will go like this: For the seventh time in this crazy season, the No. 1 team in the AP poll lost. Indiana’s loss clears the way for mid-major power Gonzaga to become the nation’s No. 1 team.
Three of Indiana’s starters played games that would get them knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the first weekend: Forward Christian Watford was virtually invisible with eight points and two rebounds, point guard Yogi Ferrell missed way too many layups as he went 2-for-10 from the field, and star 7-footer Cody Zeller looked lost and listless on the court, making 2-of-9 field-goal attempts for seven points, getting dominated by Mbakwe in the low post, and making mental errors like fumbling a rebound out of bounds, a performance that got the Minnesota student section to chant “Over-rated!”
But the better storyline, the one that often gets overlooked when a giant is slayed, is this: A Minnesota team that’s frustrated its coach with an up-and-down season made a statement. The Gophers played with an energy that hadn’t been seen in weeks. (This is a team whose most recent games were a 21-point loss to Iowa and a 26-point throttling by Ohio State.) They proved that, top to middle to bottom, the Big Ten is just a brutal, brutal conference this year.
If people doubted the Golden Gophers would make the NCAA tournament — and even with their two-month slide, people shouldn’t, due to Minnesota’s tops in the nation strength of schedule and No. 17 ranking in RPI — any doubts are erased now.
Sitting at his locker, Elliott Eliason, who scored seven big points for Minnesota, bore the battle scars: a bloodied left knee, an ice pack on his right ankle. This win was about regaining respect.
“We can’t be the nice guys in the Big Ten,” he said. “We gotta be the toughest guys around. You can’t let anybody push you around. Top to bottom it’s the best league in the country. Any given night you gotta come out and play your best game.”
Afterward, there was one man who garnered praise from both coaches: Mbakwe. Indiana coach Tom Crean, who’d signed Mbakwe to Marquette when he coached there, criticized local sportswriters who’d gotten on the sixth-year senior’s back. And Tubby singled out Mbakwe as the one who set the tone for yet another great upset in this season.
“We do need to play with a sense of urgency and play with a little edge,” Tubby said. “I thought tonight, Trevor set that tone for us, and people picked up on it, other players picked up on it, and they played harder, played smarter.
“The emotional part of it, getting too high or too low?” he continued. “You get a false sense of accomplishment… You got practice tomorrow.”
They do have practice tomorrow, and three more Big Ten games before the conference tournament begins. But sometimes we can forget: These are college students. These are the best moments of their lives. Yes, this is a big win, and it could catapult this team toward a March run, but more than that, this was one of the finest moments these young men will experience in their college careers. It was a beautiful memory, and for one night it should be left as just that.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.