Rychart leads hoops

MILWAUKEE — The stench that still fills the concources at the old Milwaukee Arena — formally nicknamed The Mecca, now called the U. S. Cellular Arena — could easily be mistaken for the smell of sweat left from former Milwaukee Buck Kareem Abdul-Jabbar nearly 30 years ago.
And although none of the sweat or tremendous skill of the NBA’s all-time leading scorer wore off on the Gophers men’s basketball team last night against Marquette, the luck and perserverance certainly did.
Minnesota defeated the Eagles 61-59 in a come-from-behind overtime thriller that saw Marquette’s Cordell Henry miss a half court shot at the buzzer to send the Gophers home with the victory.
“We didn’t play well, but our effort was there,” senior John-Blair Bickerstaff, who finished with 11 points, said. “If your effort is there, you will be rewarded.”
The reward this time was Minnesota’s seventh win of the season. But it didn’t come without a little luck. No, not in the overtime, but in regulation when it appeared Minnesota wasn’t even worthy of heading to OT.
The first half for the Gophers, to put things in simple terms, was dreadful. They shot just 9 of 34 in the first session, including 2 of 15 from three-point land. Minnesota also committed six turnovers.
“It might have looked ugly,” Gophers coach Dan Monson said. “But I thought it was a defensive struggle.”
Whatever you call it, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the fact that if Marquette had lived up to the expectation and credit given them by Monson, who compared the Eagles to a Big Ten team, Minnesota would have waving the white flag by the half.
But for some reason Marquette let the Gophers remain it the game and led just 25-21 at the break – mainly because of the Eagles inability to box out defensively, allowing the Gophers to score the majority of their points on second chances. Minnesota pulled down 12 offensive boards in the half.
“I don’t even know what we shot, whatever it was, it was bad,” Bickerstaff said. “How many 20 minute sessions can you put together like that and stay in it?”
All the Gophers needed was one.
In the second half, Minnesota’s shooting percentage improved by 20 percent. Even so, the Eagles had the same opportunity to blow the Gophers out in the first 10 minutes of the second set, but decided to take a chapter out of Shaq’s book and miss six of eight free throws.
That allowed Terrance Simmons and Minnesota to remain tight. The senior hit a baseline pullup jumper with eight minutes left to give the Gophers their first lead at 40-39.
Both teams held tight the rest of the way, and when Bickerstaff sunk a pair of free thorws with 1:48, the Gophers had a somewhat unbelievable 50-48 lead – at least to the Eagles’ fans who were in disbelief and tried to take it out their frustration by yelling at the refs.
But everyone knows that never works, and after Marquette tied things at 52, they headed to overtime.
That’s when all the shots that didn’t fall in regulation all of a sudden did. Three big hoops came from the Gophers’ Dusty Rychart, who had six of his team-high 15 in OT to give Minnesota the lead for the final time.
But perhaps the biggest key down the stretch for Minnesota was shutting down Marquette leading scorer Brian Wardle — who came in averaging 20 points per game.
Wardle ended with 15, but never got in a groove, shooting just 5 of 10 from the floor. Credit Bickerstaff for that.
“JB is one of the best defensive players in the country,” Monson said. “This win was all about him.”
Bickerstaff, and of course, a little luck.