Minnesota falls to Blazers in double-overtime thriller

Zach Eisendrath

Throughout his first week on the job as interim coach of Minnesota’s men’s basketball team, Jim Molinari has said he is more concerned with the progress his team makes than the results which accompany the team’s growth.

Progression was certainly evident Tuesday night, even in a losing cause.

In their first true road game, the resilient Gophers pushed the University of Alabama-Birmingham to the brink, but eventually fell in double overtime to the Blazers 88-81 at the Bartow Arena in Birmingham, Ala.

“Give them credit, they have some players who can make plays,” Molinari said. “(But) it’s unfortunate. We put ourselves in a position to steal one and we didn’t.”

Down early and down late, Minnesota (3-6 overall, 0-0 Big Ten) managed to put together a plethora of runs which enabled the Gophers to have opportunities to win the game at the end of regulation as well as the first overtime.

The Blazers (5-3, 0-0 Conference USA) jumped out to an early 17-5 lead, but junior guard Lawrence McKenzie led Minnesota on comeback.

McKenzie drilled four three-pointers and tallied 14 points for in the first half. The Gophers went on an 18-3 run to gain a 23-20 advantage.

However, UAB put together yet another first-half rally, this time outscoring Minnesota 20-9 to end the half and lead 40-32 at the break.

The Blazers upped their advantage to 54-40 thanks in large part to junior forward Frank Holmes. Holmes, an average player Minnesota made look exceptional with 22 points and 11 rebounds, began to exploit the Gophers’ interior defense to lead the charge.

But Minnesota refused to go away. Junior point guard Limar Wilson capped off a 25-10 run with a speedy coast-to-coast lay-up to give the Gophers their first lead of the second half, 65-64.

After UAB made one of two free throws to tie the game, both teams had chances in the final moments of regulation to win the game – but neither could do so, sending Minnesota into its first overtime game of the season.

The Gophers were able to break the Blazers’ full-court press – something that has been their Achilles heel all year – and grabbed a four-point advantage in the first overtime.

But it didn’t matter because Minnesota was unable to stop UAB’s top player when it counted most.

Junior guard Paul Delaney III – who was of great concern to Molinair before the game because of the strength that accompanies his speed – rallied the Blazers in the final minutes of overtime.

Delaney showed off his strength by fighting through four Gophers defenders for a dunk that put UAB up 77-75.

With Minnesota on its final legs and six-tenths of a second remaining, Wilson inbounded the ball to sophomore guard Jamal Abu-Shamala who sank a deep jumper, forcing a second overtime. It was Abu-Shamala’s only shot in nine minutes of play.

“I didn’t think this was his kind of game,” Molinari said. “But he showed great character to hit that shot.”

But it was all for naught. After rallying from multiple double-digit deficits throughout the contest, the Gophers were out of gas and couldn’t produce offensively, scoring only four points in the second overtime.

Despite a heartbreaking loss, Molinari said he learned a lot about a team he just took over six short days ago.

“We’re disappointed, but I’m really proud of them. I tell them everyday, we need to have a passion Ö and I thought we improved tonight.”