INDIANAPOLIS — Years from now this Gophers men’s basketball team will be remembered. Not because it lost to Kentucky 78-69 in the Final Four, but because it got there in the first place. And that accomplishment — the first Minnesota team ever to do so — made the season one to remember.
That helps numb the pain of Saturday’s loss, but the sting of defeat won’t disappear for awhile. A victory over the Wildcats and the Gophers would have played for the NCAA championship tonight against Arizona. Instead, they will watch from the stands.
“Nobody in the world expected us to make it here,” Gophers forward Courtney James said. “Nobody in the world. We proved a lot of people wrong. I’m proud of everybody on this team.”
Minnesota finished the season 31-4, Big Ten champions and Final Four participants, making it the greatest season ever in school history. That, Gophers coach Clem Haskins said, is no reason to be disappointed.
“He feels for this team,” Gophers forward Quincy Lewis said. “He said it was a great season, it was a great ride. ‘Don’t be disappointed, don’t let anybody tell you that you should have done this or done that.'”
Players might ask that of themselves for some time. Lewis said he still had certain parts of the game running through his mind Saturday night.
Lewis and his teammates probably saw several visions of Kentucky’s much-heralded defensive pressure. It ravaged Minnesota’s offense and thwarted any run it tried, forcing the Gophers into 26 turnovers.
James knew Kentucky planned to “bring the heat” against Minnesota. He said his team simply failed to execute. Kentucky took advantage of the Gophers’ miscues by scoring 23 points off turnovers.
“Kentucky has tremendous quickness,” Haskins said. “We just didn’t do a good job handling the pressure, and they bring pressure for 40 minutes. A lot of teams pressure in certain situations, but Kentucky puts the heat on you for 40 minutes.”
Minnesota said it never let up. It trailed Kentucky 36-31 at halftime but took a brief lead with 10:45 left in the second half when Gophers guard Bobby Jackson made a 3-pointer. The basket gave Minnesota a 52-51 lead, but the turnovers kept on coming and gave Kentucky the lead for good a few minutes later.
“They were dominating us in certain areas,” Wildcats coach Rick Pitino said. “I felt that our guys, just when it went (the Gophers’) way, and they had the lead, and they had momentum, we stopped it right then and there, came back, and immediately made big plays.”
Perhaps the game’s biggest play came with 14:31 left in the second half. That’s when James scored a basket that would have brought Minnesota within two points of Kentucky.
Referee Jim Burr saw the play differently. He called James for a player control foul, voiding the shot.
Haskins became livid and threw off his jacket in disgust. He demanded an explanation. Burr then called a technical foul on Haskins.
“The technical foul was for unsportsmanlike behavior and unnecessary demonstration,” Burr said.
When asked to define unnecessary demonstration, Burr said he would let his previous statement stand.
Kentucky sent Derek Anderson, who had not played since Jan. 18 after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament, to the free throw line. He made both shots. On the following possession, Wildcats forward Ron Mercer made a jump shot to give Kentucky a 51-43 lead.
Instead of being down by two, the Gophers then trailed by eight.
But Gophers center John Thomas said the technical energized their efforts.
“I think our emotions were flaring kind of high and we got on a run by ourselves,” he said. “We wanted to pick up our intensity. Anytime the coach gets a technical, I guess that kind of motivates us and gets us into it.”
Jackson finished his career at Minnesota with a game-high 23 points. Thomas and forward Sam Jacobson each added 10.
“We’re proud of our season,” Jacobson said. “A week or two down the road when everything is settled down and the emotions kind of relax, I’ll realize we had a great season. We have nothing to be ashamed of. Our names will be in the record books forever, and that’s a great feeling.”
But for the moment, the aches from the loss linger.
“It hurts,” James said. “Don’t let me tell you different. It hurts bad.”
The Gophers are already thinking about next year — a year without seniors Jackson, Thomas, Trevor Winter and Aaron Stauber.
“We earned a lot of respect throughout the whole year,” said Gophers guard Charles Thomas, who played the game with a bad back and a pulled tendon in his left wrist. “We believe in each other. As long as we continue to work hard, I think you’ll see Minnesota back here.”