Tournament toughness helps Gophers again

Tim Klobuchar

CHICAGO — After Michigan defeated Iowa in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament on Friday, Hawkeyes coach Tom Davis congratulated Wolverines coach Brian Ellerbe outside the interview room, then reportedly wished Ellerbe’s team good luck against its next opponent — Michigan State.
That game, of course, never took place, thanks to the Gophers’ 76-73 upset over the Spartans a few hours later.
In the account of that game in Saturday’s Chicago Tribune, Jason Stanford, one of the major contributors in the victory, was identified instead as his brother, Jermaine. Even coach Clem Haskins mistakenly referred to him as Jayson Walton (a Gophers forward in the early 90s) on a few occasions in postgame press gatherings. A day after beating Michigan State, Minnesota was bounced out of the tournament by Michigan in convincing fashion, 85-69.
The moral of the story? The eighth-seeded Gophers weren’t given much careful attention before or after their upset, but didn’t stick around the tournament quite long enough to make a lasting impression. Part of that was because they had to rely on players who were previously so anonymous that their names were tough to keep straight — even to their coach.
Between the coming and the going, however, in that brief two-hour window on Friday afternoon, the Gophers showed the type of grit, resolve and penchant for big plays that were evident during their march to the Final Four last season. The difference this time was that the Gophers were fighting not for the best season in school history, but for their postseason lives.
They accomplished just that, as their win over the Spartans allowed them to get their record to .500 and become eligible for an NIT berth.
This, of course, was only possible because of the presence of the new Big Ten tourney.
“It’s serious business,” Minnesota forward Miles Tarver said. “Guys came in here and saw this as a chance at redemption. We’ve been up and down all year, and a lot of people have cast us away. This was a great opportunity to come out and show a national audience that we’re still a good, competitive team.”
It was an odd matchup. The Gophers were a team that had plenty to gain from the Big Ten tournament, and their coach is one of the few who opposed it. Top-seeded Michigan State had the most to lose from an early bow-out, and their coach, Tom Izzo, is heartily in favor of the tournament.
Despite their coach’s attitude, the Gophers used the tournament to their advantage by summoning their postseason experiences from last year.
They came out more intense and finished more composed than the athletic Spartans, who scored no fast break points in the second half. Senior guard Eric Harris severely outplayed his counterpart, Mateen Cleaves, a sophomore recently crowned Big Ten Player of the Year. Harris scored a career-high 29 points and spent much of his time on defense guarding Cleaves, who shot a paltry 2-for-18 from the floor.
“It’s very special,” Harris said. “He’s the league MVP, so he’s kind of like Michael Jordan now. He’s the man right now. I just wanted to come out and compete, and I knew he had to play me, too.”
The frustration of his day got to Cleaves, especially on offense, where Michigan State had trouble adjusting to the variety of zone defenses Minnesota employed.
“It confused him,” Gophers guard Kevin Clark said. “A lot of times he was arguing with his guys because they weren’t in the right spot at the right time.”
Minnesota, meanwhile, weathered severe foul trouble, got a key defensive play from Tarver with 17 seconds left when he stole an inbounds pass and received a key free throw from freshman Kevin Nathaniel.
“They know how to win,” Haskins said of his team. “And I think that’s the thing to understand in coaching — that if you put them in position to win, that they know how to win. The key is Sam (Jacobson), Eric, and Quincy (Lewis) — that is a team that knows how to win.”
That trio is among the few Gophers left who went through the emotional wringer of the 1997 postseason, making them well-equipped for a game like Friday’s. That the Gophers even had something as seemingly minor as an NIT berth on the line didn’t matter. They wanted to bleed every last drop out of the season — especially Harris and Jacobson, whose Minnesota careers will end with the season.
“You can’t say enough about that,” Haskins said. “We talked about that because this is the last hurrah for Sam and Eric, and I’m so glad the way they’re finishing up with a great run. Believe me when I say this that no one in the Twin Cities or any state would guess we’d be .500 back in November.”
The loss to Michigan prevented Minnesota from advancing any further in the tournament, or into the national consciousness, as they did a year ago. But their recent play leading up to that game, reminiscent of last year in many ways, was enough — just enough — to keep the season and a few college careers breathing. And right now, that’s enough for the Gophers.
“We just know we put forth the effort,” Harris said Saturday. “We can look in the mirror and be happy with our performance. We don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”