Win puts Minn. back at .500

The Gophers got a much-needed home victory over Iowa on Saturday to boost their record to 5-5 in the Big Ten.

Luke Middendorf

Saturday’s contest between Minnesota and Iowa was strangely reminiscent of their ’07-’08 basketball seasons.

The Gophers started strong but struggled mightily in the middle. The Hawkeyes had a hard time in the beginning but made a heavy push after the half-way point.

However different, both of these programs’ journeys eventually brought Minnesota to a No. 6 and Iowa to a No. 7 ranking in the Big Ten three fourths of the way into the season.

Ironically, both teams were also neck-and-neck three fourths of the way into Saturday’s game, with Minnesota clinging onto a one-point lead at 11 minutes remaining.

But the Gophers (15-7 overall, 5-5 Big Ten) would eventually separate themselves and seal a 63-50 victory by the end of the game, just like they eventually hope to pull away in the Big Ten standings and clinch a NCAA tournament berth.

“I’m finally smiling,” Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith said with a grin as he walked into the postgame press conference. “We finally played a decent game here.”

Smith was referring to the Gophers recent woes in their own back yard, losing the last three games at Williams Arena to Indiana, Michigan State and Wisconsin.

“Our goal from now on is to not lose at home for the rest of the year,” Minnesota senior center Spencer Tollackson said. “I think it’s a realistic goal for us, but the NCAA tournament is still our ultimate goal.”

The Gophers started out hot against the Hawkeyes (11-14 overall, 4-8 Big Ten) by forcing turnovers and grabbing offensive rebounds, cruising to a 34-25 first-half lead. Their fast start on Saturday was again similar to how Minnesota began the Tubby Smith regime by shooting out to a 10-2 nonconference record.

Iowa, on the other hand, failed to get their offense going during the first half, later catching fire from outside in the middle of the second half.

Relatively comparable to their play on Saturday was the Hawkeyes 7-6 start in nonconference play, followed by a midseason surge with wins against Michigan State and Ohio State to get back into the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.

“They’ve beaten people that we couldn’t beat,” Smith said of Iowa. “With the shooters they have, they can be in any game.”

So when the Hawkeyes shot their way back from a 10 point deficit to gain a 42-41 lead with 11 minutes remaining in the game, it seemed as though the two teams were fighting for more than just points.

The border-rivals were playing for bragging rights, the win, and more importantly, the momentum necessary to make a late-season push for the NCAA tournament.

But on Minnesota’s next possession, an Iowa foul gave Tollackson a chance to gain back the lead at the free-throw line, where he came into the game shooting a measly 52 percent.

As fate would have it, the senior center swished the first shot, followed by a banked-in second attempt that brought the 14,625 fans at Williams Arena to their feet. Tollackson reacted by carelessly shrugging his shoulders as he trotted back down the court, struck with the look, “I’ll take what I can get.”

Whether it would have come by a banked-in free throw or a thunderous dunk, the Gophers’ slim lead turned into a much needed home victory. A win that brings the team back to .500 in the Big Ten, and also back into post-season consideration.

“I thought tonight’s game was really ugly,” Tollackson said. “But like I said after the game in the locker room, we’ll take eight more just like it.”