Kentucky’s full-court press takes Gophers out of their game plan

For once, the media was right — partially, at least.
Kentucky’s press was written about in magazines, newspapers and seemingly even in school textbooks. It was talked about on four-hour television specials, late-night radio call-in shows and the Weather Channel.
The Gophers men’s basketball team knew it was coming, partially because of game film and also because that’s all the players heard about for the days they were in Indianapolis.
When the game started, one thing was clear: All the talk about Kentucky’s relentless trapping was accurate. Minnesota committed 26 turnovers, several of which were a direct result of the Wildcats’ press.
Nonetheless, the Gophers — despite having more turnovers in the first half than their season average for a game — only trailed 36-31 at the intermission. And despite continuing its ballhandling woes into the second half, Minnesota managed to forge a 52-51 lead with 10 minutes left.
The table was set for another late-game run that has become the trademark of this year’s Gophers team. It looked like a replay of the UCLA game, with only the uniforms and faces of the opponents having changed.
But shove the fancy full-court press aside for a minute. Yes, it dictated much of the game’s tempo and forced the Gophers into some horrible passes. The bottom line, however, is that Minnesota was winning at one point, despite being thoroughly gobbled up by Kentucky’s trap.
What stopped the Gophers run was their inability to develop a consistent scoring threat outside of Bobby Jackson. In virtually every one of Minnesota’s big wins this season, balance has been the key. And within that diverse scoring attack, at least two players normally rose above everyone else.
ù Quincy Lewis’ 20 points off the bench were a key buffer to Bobby Jackson’s 26 in the Gophers’ 96-91 overtime win at Indiana.
ù In Minnesota’s 67-66 win over Illinois, the team needed every one of John Thomas’ 12 points (including the game-winning free throws) to go along with Jackson’s 18.
ù The combination of 36 points from Jackson and 29 from Sam Jacobson in the Gophers’ double overtime Sweet Sixteen win over Clemson is the most recent example.
On Saturday against Kentucky, the Gophers got the usual outstanding performance from Jackson (23 points, six rebounds, four assists). But nobody else was able to step up. The next highest scorers were John Thomas and Jacobson, who each had 10.
The reason? Part of it was simply cold shooting from usually reliable reserves Quincy Lewis and Charles Thomas. Another part of it was Kentucky’s relentless half-court defense.
This was most apparent after Jackson’s three-pointer capped a 9-0 Minnesota run to give the team a 52-51 lead. Emotion was on the Gophers side at that point, but good looks at the basket were hard to come by from then on.
“We went too long without scoring ourselves, but again the credit goes to them,” Gophers coach Clem Haskins said. “We didn’t have a good shooting night when guys like Quincy Lewis don’t score for us.”
Lewis scored just two points on 1-for-9 shooting. Charles Thomas, who in addition to having a sore back also played with a pulled tendon in his left wrist, made just two of his seven field goal attempts.
“It didn’t affect me,” Thomas said of his injuries. “I can’t use that as an excuse. I didn’t play well.”
Said Lewis: “We had some mental breakdowns. We could have shot the ball better. You have to find other ways to score when you’re not shooting well.”
In the end, only Jackson was able to get enough open looks and clear lanes to the basket to be a significant scoring factor. Kentucky’s half-court defense — which Thomas and Lewis praised — didn’t allow the Gophers to score inside or outside until it was too late.
That’s why Minnesota will have to be — and has every right to be — content with a 31-4 record and a first-ever berth in the Final Four. And that’s also why Kentucky will be playing tonight for a chance to repeat as NCAA champs.