MINNEAPOLIS — Maybe Tubby Smith’s team isn’t dead after all.
Having lost two in a row and six of its last eight games, Minnesota appeared to be letting what started out as a dream season slip away. The Gophers were ranked eighth in the nation in early January but had fallen out of the Top 25 entering Thursday’s game against border rival Wisconsin.
Minnesota fans had grown restless as they watched their team’s season fade, especially after the Gophers let a win against Illinois disappear in the second half on Sunday. There had been murmurs calling for the end of the Smith era with the hope that a new coach could inject some life into a suddenly underachieving team.
But with Thursday’s 58-53 overtime win over the 20th-ranked Badgers, the Gophers suddenly have that new life — at least for one night.
“The sky was falling around here,” Smith said. “Sometimes when the sky’s falling, you’re laying under a ceiling thinking it’s going to cave in on you. So they wanted it, but we had to have it.”
It was certainly ugly at times on Thursday. Then again, it’s rarely pretty when Minnesota and Wisconsin go toe-to-toe. If not for a mental lapse by Wisconsin senior Mike Bruesewitz late in regulation, the Badgers likely would have escaped Williams Arena with a win and sent Minnesota into a deeper tailspin. But Bruesewitz turned the ball over on an inbounds play with 22.6 seconds remaining to give the Gophers one last chance.
Minnesota sophomore Joe Coleman hit two free throws to tie the score with 17.4 seconds to play in regulation. Wisconsin guard Traevon Jackson’s miss at the buzzer sent the game into overtime, where Minnesota outscored the Badgers 9-4 to pull off the win and temporarily revive its season.
“At this point, I think it could be,” Gophers senior Rodney Williams said when asked if the victory was a season-saving win. “This was a real big game for us. We needed something to help get our confidence back.”
In the position the Gophers are in, they’ll take any help they can get. Bruesewitz’s gaffe was a big one, thanks in part to Minnesota’s defense — and a few mind games from Williams, who played against Bruesewitz when the two were prep stars in the Twin Cities. After Austin Hollins was whistled for a charge, Bruesewitz took the ball out of bounds.
The Gophers planned on fouling once the ball was in play, but Bruesewitz lost track of the game situation and took two steps to his left as he tried to inbound the ball, giving Minnesota one last possession after a traveling call.
“I was just kind of talking trash to him a little bit,” Williams said “I think that took him out of his game right there. I guess the basketball gods were with us tonight.”
The basketball gods may have helped Minnesota out of its rut, too. The win pulled the Gophers back to .500 (6-6) in Big Ten play, but their conference schedule is far from a cakewalk the rest of the way. Minnesota travels to Iowa on Sunday to face a Hawkeyes team the Gophers beat by three in Minneapolis earlier this month. From there, Smith’s team goes to No. 13 Ohio State and hosts top-ranked Indiana.
In what is perhaps the best conference in college basketball, any win is precious. For a Minnesota squad starting to free-fall, Thursday’s win was twice as large.
“I think it will be a big boost to us,” Smith said. “We’re not a dog by any means. … This league is pretty tough. It’s the best league in college basketball. So we know in order for us to compete, you’ve got to be on top of your game and you’ve got to execute to perfection some times in order to win, and we haven’t done that in our losses. Tonight, we executed.”
Thursday’s win had the Gophers dancing after the game, but not just to any old song. Minnesota blared Ke$ha’s “Die Young” in the locker room, the same song Wisconsin (17-8, 8-4) danced to following its overtime win against No. 3 Michigan last weekend. A video of the Badgers celebrating to that song went viral and was given a shout-out by the pop singer herself.
That Ke$ha’s song was chosen Thursday was merely a coincidence, right?
“No comment,” senior forward Trevor Mbakwe said.
The win not only stopped Minnesota’s skid, but it was also a bit of payback after the Badgers edged the Gophers by a point in Madison late last month. After trailing by 10 in their own building, the Gophers showed they could pull out the gritty, hard-fought win that the Big Ten often requires.
Regardless of whether it restored Gophers fans’ confidence in the team, Thursday’s victory certainly had Minnesota feeling good about itself once again.
“We knew it was going to be a big game not only for us but for Wisconsin,” Mbakwe said. “They’re chasing a Big Ten championship.
“We had a tough stretch. We lost to some good teams. But we knew we had to keep our spirits high. … We still believe we’re one of the best teams in the country.”