Gopher gold: Thanks for a terrific season

In 1990, an underrated Gopher men’s basketball team made an improbable, inspiring run in the NCAA tournament. They exceeded all expectations, reaching the Elite Eight. In the final seconds of that game, the Gophers moved the ball to their best three-point shooter. One shot could have put them into the Final Four. But Kevin Lynch was just slightly off balance. His shot bounced off the rim, taking the glorious hopes of a team, a university and a state with it.
Losing is a strange thing. For all the lip service paid to sportsmanship, clean play and teamwork, come crunch time the ghost of Vince Lombardi creeps into the minds of athletes and spectators alike, screaming the importance of winning. The adrenaline pumps, the heart flutters, the pupils contract in steely focus — all in the passionate determination to achieve that ephemeral moment of victory. But losing is the far more common, palpable and lasting experience.
Seven years after that one wayward shot, most Gopher fans remember little of the thrills, drama and pure fun of that season and playoff run. The lingering image is one of a last-second, off-balance shot that almost went in.
This year’s Gophers went even further. The championship hope lived well into the second half of their first-ever Final Four game. Scrappy and determined as always, the Gophers battled back from several deficits to take a one-point lead on a Bobby Jackson three-pointer. But this team that came back so many times had gone as far as its collective heart could take it. In the waning minutes of the game, the defending NCAA champion Kentucky Wildcats built and kept a substantial lead as the Gophers’ rousing season slipped away.
But it would be a travesty if this team was remembered for its less-than-spectacular end. Not only were the 1996-97 Gophers the best team in school history (31-4), they were the best definition of teamwork in recent memory. Their selfless play, chemistry, attitude and bottomless faith in themselves was an inspiring, refreshing change-of-pace in a sport often built around big egos and superstars. The Gophers’ mixture of talent and depth gave the University a Big Ten title and undefeated home record. Coach Clem Haskins was named Big Ten and Associated Press Coach-of-the-Year; and All-America guard Bobby Jackson was named Big Ten Player-of-the-Year.
And of course there were all the fantastic, heart stopping victories. The dramatic way in which these Golden Gophers won propelled Minnesotans into unparalleled hoops fever. Players pulled through when they needed to: Jackson and Sam Jacobson at Indiana; John Thomas at home against Illinois. The team’s success in the NCAA tournament will always be linked to Jackson’s magnificent play in the double-overtime win over Clemson and the clutch shooting of Charles Thomas and Quincy Lewis against UCLA.
Hearts may be heavy in Gopher country, and rightfully so. A team like this doesn’t come along often. Jackson, Thomas and Trevor Winter have played their last game in maroon and gold. But this terrific team deserves to be remembered most of all for the joy they gave all their fans. Thanks, team.