Seniors shine in farewell tour(ney)

Todd Zolecki

INDIANAPOLIS — A few Gophers men’s basketball players took some solace Saturday night knowing there might be other chances at the Final Four. They said a second appearance at the Alamodome in San Antonio, which is the site of next year’s Final Four and is where they defeated Clemson and UCLA in this year’s NCAA tournament, is not out of the question.
But for four Gophers, the seniors, there is no second chance. Bobby Jackson, John Thomas, Trevor Winter and Aaron Stauber played their last game in a Minnesota uniform on Saturday in the Gophers’ 78-69 loss to Kentucky.
They will be missed.
“I can’t put it into words how I feel for them,” Gophers sophomore Quincy Lewis said. “But there’s no greater feeling than making it to the Final Four and winning the Big Ten. That’s what Coach (Clem) Haskins talked about. We accomplished a lot of things, but it didn’t end like we wanted it to, so we feel bad for the seniors.”
Jackson, the Big Ten Player of the Year and second-team All-America selection, finished his Minnesota career with a game-high 23 points against Kentucky. During the tournament, Jackson became the star on a team that wasn’t supposed to have any stars.
He led Minnesota past Clemson by scoring a career-high 36 points. The junior college transfer from Western Nebraska Community College is not a household name across the country, but was superb for Minnesota.
“I think I had a great two years at the University of Minnesota,” he said. “They treated me well. All I wanted was a chance, and Coach Haskins gave me a chance.
“I went out there and worked hard every day and tried to improve my game to help the team win. Our record speaks for itself. Everybody doubted us in the beginning of the year. We just worked really hard to get in this situation.”
For Winter, his career as a Gopher has been five years of work.
The Slayton, Minn., native sat dejected in the Gophers’ locker room for some time before trying to put his last season into perspective.
“It’s hard to say goodbye, but it’s been five years, and it’s been five good years,” he said. “Somewhere down the line we’ll look back, and all the things we did, all the records we set, all the places we’ve gone — it’s the first time we’ve ever been here.”
Haskins told his players after the game not to hang their heads but be proud of what it accomplished.
“The coaching staff pushed us and we worked hard,” Thomas said. “We had 20-plus wins, got to the Final Four and unfortunately lost. I guess someone has got to lose and someone has to win. We’re not ashamed. We’re going to hold our heads high, and we’re very proud of our season.”
And the underclassmen said it couldn’t have been done without the four seniors.
“I’ll see them in the league (NBA) or whatever they want to do,” James said. “I hugged them and told them I loved them.”