They were outmuscled, outmanned, and a walk-on who poured Gatorade for the Final Four team last year played a key role. Still, save for a few bruises and cuts expected from a Big Ten opener, the Gophers emerged from their 83-79 loss to No. 5 Purdue on Friday as unbowed as a beaten team could be.
After a mostly shaky non-conference season, the Gophers opened defense of their Big Ten title against the team most likely to take it from them, and showed they won’t yield the championship without stiff opposition — and maybe a few stray elbows. Purdue coach Gene Keady opened his post-game press conference by saying, “Wow, what a war.”
“I’m so proud of the way my young men played today,” Minnesota coach Clem Haskins said. “If we play like that every game in the Big Ten season, our opponents are in for a hard day’s work.”
The Boilermakers are almost everyone’s pick to regain the Big Ten title they lost last season after winning it the previous three years. They’re led in scoring by All-American candidate Chad Austin and in spirit by a player only teammates like — the scrappy, grating sophomore forward, Brian Cardinal.
On Friday, Cardinal played both roles, leading Purdue with 22 points but still getting as much attention for his flops and other gyrations. Miles Tarver, often assigned to guard Cardinal, thought Cardinal deserved an Oscar.
“He’s very theatrical out there,” Tarver said. “Academy Award winners make people believe, and he made the refs believe today. That’s how he got the calls.”
Purdue came into Friday’s game even more irascible than usual after being embarrassed at home by league also-ran Michigan State in West Lafayette, Ind., three days earlier. The result was a physical battle that the smaller and thinner Gophers figured to lose badly, but instead lost narrowly.
Minnesota exhausted what little inside manpower it had trying to stop the 6-8 Cardinal and 6-11 center Brad Miller. Minnesota’s Kyle Sanden and Tarver, two of the Gophers’ tallest players, both fouled out after playing a combined 32 minutes. Sanden picked up his fifth foul when he inadvertently clubbed Cardinal with an elbow after pulling down a rebound. Tarver sported a cut on the back of his head after the game.
But he and the other Gophers took the Boilermakers to the limit. Their offense, led by Sam Jacobson’s season-high 28 points, performed better than it has most of the season. Their defense also shut down a few key Boilermakers. Austin, hobbled by a thigh bruise suffered during the game, scored just 13 points. The petulant Miller, whom Tarver compared to Jim Carrey because of his facial contortions when a call goes against him, fouled out with eight points.
Purdue took advantage of Minnesota’s fouling, hitting 28 of 33 free throws. Conversely, the Gophers shot just 20 from the line, and even worse, made only 11. The Boilermakers not only had the size advantage, but also the numbers advantage. They got solid contributions from oft-forgotten players such as Jaraan Cornell, Mike Robinson and Gary McQuay.
“They have the strength that we had last year,” said Jacobson. “Purdue definitely wore us down. I think that the key was that they have so much depth.”
Last year, Haskins had the similar luxury of plucking a 7-footer in Trevor Winter and Mr. Basketball-winners Quincy Lewis and Charles Thomas off his bench. On Friday, he was forced to dig deeper and find Rob Schoenrock to take the place of Sanden and Tarver. The 6-8 Schoenrock, playing his first and last year for the Gophers, was a manager for last year’s team after playing two years at Hibbing Community College.
And though he didn’t attempt a shot, his contributions were apt for this game. He fought Cardinal and Miller underneath and pulled down four offensive rebounds in 12 minutes, all in the second half.
One of those rebounds came underneath his own basket, and Schoenrock quickly passed to Jacobson, who was cutting down the lane. Jacobson threw down a one-handed dunk that elicited one of the loudest roars in recent Williams Arena history. It was a highlight-reel jam, but Schoenrock will probably remember it more than Jacobson.
“I’d have to see it again on video to see what it looks like,” Schoenrock said. “It felt really good at the time.”
The slam narrowed Minnesota’s deficit to 54-50, but it would get no closer the rest of the way. The Gophers had a few chances to hit the big shot that might have made the difference, but missed all of them. Still, Haskins said he couldn’t ask for any more.
“I don’t think we can play any better than that,” he said. “We could make some more shots. Eric (Harris) and Quincy (Lewis) got some good looks, but fatigue and pressure are all factors that keep you from making those shots.”
FRIDAY’S SUMMARYNo. 5 Purdue 42 41 — 83
Gophers 39 40 — 79
PURDUE (12-3)Cornell 4-8 0-0 10, Cardinal 8-11 4-6 22, Miller 2-4 4-4 8, Austin 3-7 6-6 13, Eldridge 4-6 0-0 8, McQuay 2-5 4-5 8, Mayfield 0-0 4-4 4, Robinson 2-5 6-8 10, Barnes 0-0 0-0 0, Kerkhof 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-47 28-33 83.
MINNESOTA (7-5)Lewis 6-15 0-1 12, Tarver 1-1 2-4 4, Sanden 0-0 0-0 0, Jacobson 11-24 2-4 28, Harris 3-11 3-5 12, Clark 5-12 2-4 13, Nathaniel 3-6 2-2 8, Broxsie 1-1 0-0 2, Archambault 0-1 0-0 0, Schoenrock 0-1 0-0 0, Ja. Stanford 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 30-72 11-20 79.
Halftime — Purdue 42, Minnesota 39. 3-Point goals — Purdue 5-12 (Cornell 2-4, Cardinal 2-3, Austin 1-3, Eldridge 0-2), Minnesota 8-20 (Jacobson 4-9, Harris 3-6, Clark 1-2, Lewis 0-3). Fouled out — Miller, Tarver, Sanden. Rebounds — Purdue 36 (Cardinal, McQuay 6), Minnesota 39 (Clark 7). Assists — Purdue 14 (Eldridge 3), Minnesota 19 (Harris 5). Total fouls — Purdue 21, Minnesota 28. Technicals — Sanden, McQuay. A — 14,521.