Forty minutes and 11 years of emotions poured onto the Williams Arena court Saturday following the Gophers men’s basketball team’s 67-66 victory over No. 23 Illinois.
As time expired and Gophers forward Quincy Lewis clutched the ball with both hands, a few of his teammates rushed toward him and piled upon one another directly across from Illinois’ bench. Others smiled and gave each other high-fives.
They celebrated 40 minutes of a grueling win against the only Big Ten team to beat them this season. Forward Sam Jacobson suffering from the flu, Bobby Jackson fouling out with 3:25 to go and John Thomas sinking two free throws with 4.7 seconds left were good enough reasons to scream and shout.
Gophers coach Clem Haskins expressed his joy in a different way, and for different reasons. He walked to center court and blew kisses to the fans while raising his arms toward the sky, trying to hold back tears. After 11 years at Minnesota, he finally had a share of a Big Ten championship.
“It’s a great thing for Coach Haskins because he has never been in this situation before,” Jackson said.
Actually, Haskins didn’t come up with the idea for the curtain call. Heading toward the steps leading down to the No. 2 Gophers’ locker room, his assistant, Bill Brown, told him to go back out there. He obliged Brown’s request and did it, he said, for the fans.
In the locker room, Haskins didn’t hold back any of his feelings. Players said Haskins gave them hugs and cried.
“I was the emotional guy,” he said. “I explained to them to keep even keel. They were very cool.”
But they made sure to celebrate, although they insist their antics on the court weren’t for the Big Ten championship. They want to win the title outright. Sharing it with another team won’t sit well with any of them.
The Gophers have four fewer losses than Wisconsin and Purdue with four games to go. They can clinch the title outright by beating Michigan on the road Wednesday.
“We worked too hard to be co-champs,” Gophers guard Charles Thomas said.
So none of that celebration was for the title?
“Nope,” he said with a smile.
If this were a regular game, and the title wasn’t on the line, players would still have been ecstatic. The Gophers were down by one when John Thomas stepped to the line with 4.7 seconds left.
As Thomas walked up to take his first shot, Illinois guard Bryant Notree patted Thomas on his shorts and told him to make both.
Thomas said, “OK, thanks,” to himself and did. Notree’s effort to psyche-out Thomas failed. So did Illinois coach Lon Kruger’s efforts. He called a timeout before both of Thomas’ shots, trying to put the freeze on his shaky free throw shooting.
But neither Notree’s comments nor the two timeouts affected Thomas. The 52 percent free throw shooter’s marksmanship set up the final game-winning attempt for the Illini.
Illinois guard Kiwane Garris, who finished with a game-high 23 points, had the ball with less than four seconds left. He pushed the ball up the court, looking to get inside the 3-point arc and get off an open jump shot. As he entered traffic, he saw Eric Harris in front of him.
Harris reached for the ball. Garris tried to crossover his dribble and avoid Harris.
He did, but he also lost control of the ball. It bounced into Lewis’ hands to effectively end the game. The celebration began and a few of the 14,554 fans spilled onto the floor.
“I had an opportunity where after I crossed the ball I was going to be wide open and try to knock down the shot,” Garris said.
More impressive than Thomas making the free throws and Garris losing the ball was that Minnesota did it without Jackson, who finished with a team-high 18 points (7-for-12 from the floor). Jacobson, who played only 22 minutes because he was sick, finished with a season-low four points.
“That shows toughness,” Jackson said. “Somebody had to step up. We didn’t want to crumble in crunch time. That shows signs of a great team.”
GAME SUMMARYNo. 23 Illinois 30 36 — 66No. 2 Gophers 30 37 — 67
Illinois–Gee 3-3 0-2 6, Turner 4-8 0-0 11, Gandy 0-6 3-4 3, Heldman 1-6 0-0 2, Garris 6-11 7-8 23, Notree 5-9 2-2 12, Johnson 2-2 1-2 5, Boline 0-0 0-0 0, Chukwudebe 2-3 0-0 4. Totals 23-48 13-18 66.
Gophers–James 3-5 0-0 6, Jacobson 2-7 0-0 4, J. Thomas 3-4 6-9 12, Jackson 7-12 2-3 18, Harris 2-9 4-6 10, Lewis 1-5 2-2 4, Tarver 1-1 0-1 2, Winter 1-1 0-0 2, C.Thomas 4-8 1-2 9. Totals 24-52 15-23 67.
3-Point goals–Illinois 7-16 (Garris 4-6, Turner 3-5, Gandy 0-1, Notree 0-1, Heldman 0-3), Minnesota 4-18 (Jackson 2-2, Harris 2-6, Lewis 0-2, Jacobson 0-4, C. Thomas 0-4). Fouled out–Gandy, Jackson. Rebounds–Illinois 28 (Gandy 5), Minnesota 32 (James, J.Thomas 7). Assists–Illinois 10 (Turner, Heldman, Garris, Notree 2), Minnesota 16 (Harris 6). Total fouls–Illinois 22, Minnesota 17. A–14,554.