Gophers hold on to upset No. 22 Wisconsin

Minnesota secured their first victory in Madison since 2009.

Freshman guard Amir Coffey drives the ball up the court on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017 at the Sports Pavilion. 

Chris Dang, Daily File Photo

Freshman guard Amir Coffey drives the ball up the court on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017 at the Sports Pavilion. 

Nick Jungheim

While there was no trophy on the line, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team followed the football team’s example and snapped a long losing skid in Madison. Tough defense led the Gophers to a big road victory against their rivals to the east.

Minnesota (12-2, 2-1 Big Ten) defeated No. 22 Wisconsin (10-4, 2-1 Big Ten) in a low-scoring, 59-52 game.  Both teams played physically in a contest that featured multiple scoring runs on each side. Despite a 15-point halftime lead, the Gophers narrowly held onto their lead down the stretch.

“Great win for our guys to be able to come in here and win in this building,” head coach Richard Pitino told reporters. “To just make the toughness plays at the end of the game to find a way to get that win, that’s what this league is all about.”

Minnesota’s defense smothered Wisconsin in the first half, holding the Badgers to just 14 points in the first 20 minutes. Poor 3-point shooting especially hurt the Badgers as they went 2-14 over that stretch.  

In the second half, the Gophers responded on multiple occasions to Wisconsin scoring runs. With 13:24 to play, the Badgers cut the lead to six, but redshirt senior Brock Stull drilled crowd-silencing 3-pointers on consecutive possessions.

“This game kind of fits him,” Pitino told reporters of Stull. “It’s a style he’s used to playing, kind of a grind-it-out game. He was able to give us some really good contributions.”

After that, the game remained close as Wisconsin’s All Big-Ten center Ethan Happ went right at the Gophers’ big men and got them in foul trouble. Senior Jordan Murphy, who recorded five points and 11 rebounds, fouled out with just under four minutes left and the Badgers promptly cut the lead to two points.

Following a timeout, junior Amir Coffey broke a 6:16 scoring drought for Minnesota. Senior Dupree McBrayer then forced two turnovers and converted with fast-break buckets to push the lead to eight.  

In the closing minutes, Minnesota employed a “Hack-a-Happ” strategy, intentionally fouling the senior who has shot barely 52 percent from the line this season. He went just 1-7 on the night, which allowed the Gophers to hold on for a seven-point victory.

“We just kept fouling Happ.” Pitino told reporters. “We talked about just sending guys at him sending him to the free throw line and find a way to get the rebound.”

Coffey and McBrayer carried the load offensively for Minnesota on Thursday night. With 21 points, including a stretch in the first half where he scored 15-straight for the Gophers, Coffey led all scorers. McBrayer added 14 points, with 13 in the game’s final eight minutes.

“Coaches always stress for me to get going.” Coffey told the Big Ten Network. “It opens the court up for my teammates.  Anytime I can get going or Dupree McBrayer or Jordan Murphy, it just opens it up for everybody.”

Coming off their first win in a true road game this season, it’s nothing but Big Ten play for the Gophers from here on out. Their next game comes on Tuesday night when the Gophers host Maryland at Williams Arena.