Final two weeks will decide Gophers’ fate

Minnesota is still searching for a signature win to help its tournament hopes.

Zach Eisendrath

The final two weeks of the regular season for the Minnesota men’s basketball team could be appropriately renamed “The Last Stand.”

With four games remaining, time is running out for the Gophers to pick up the signature wins missing from their current NCAA tournament résumé.

If Minnesota, which has talked about its goal to make the Big Dance all season, wants those aspirations to become a reality, a win tonight against No. 16 Purdue at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette would be a good starting point. Tip-off is slated for 8 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.

After letting statement wins slip through their fingertips at home against then-No. 9 Indiana and at-the-time No. 11 Michigan State, the Gophers (17-9 overall, 7-7 Big Ten) likely have to win three of their final four games, plus their first-round contest in the Big Ten tournament to garner consideration for an at-large berth.

“We’ve got to find a way to get wins,” coach Tubby Smith said. “We didn’t take care of business at home and that forces you to go out and find a way to upset somebody.

“We feel we can play with anyone, we just need to finish games. We are close. We’ve been close all year long, but close doesn’t count, we’ve got to win.”

With the calendar just a few days away from March, senior guard Lawrence McKenzie said he can feel a sense of urgency around the team – that understands full well what it has to do to put its name back in NCAA tournament discussion.

“The No. 1 goal is to get to the tournament,” he said. “When you really want something you will do whatever it takes to get it.”

What it will take the Gophers tonight to upset the Boilermakers (21-6, 12-2) – who are a perfect 7-0 at home in conference play – may be their best performance of the season.

Purdue, which is coached by Smith’s projected coach-of-the-year nominee Matt Painter, is young but talented.

Entering Tuesday night the Boilermakers, who are led in scoring by two freshmen – guard E’Twaun Moore and forward Robbie Hummel – were just a half-game out of first place in the Big Ten.

The Gophers, though, don’t appear to be intimidated by Purdue, or any team remaining on their schedule. In fact, after back-to-back home wins, Minnesota appears to be as confident as it has been all season.

“We know we can win (tonight). Purdue is a good team, but they’re college players just like us.” Westbrook said. “If we were playing the Lakers, I would say we would win.”

Said McKenzie: “Everybody is confident. I think every guy on this team wants to go to the tournament and we know if we get this win we are one step closer.”