ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Morsel by unpleasant morsel, Michigan forward Maurice Taylor digested almost every word of his Jan. 11 post-game commentary on Wednesday.
Following a frustrating 70-64 loss to the Gophers basketball team at Williams Arena, Taylor said a few things Minnesota players remembered. He also made a promise he didn’t keep.
“They’re ripe to be beaten. I’m not going to say Minnesota is going to win the Big Ten because they’re 4-0. They’re not going to go undefeated. I’m not going to sit here and say they’re a better team, because they’re not,” Taylor said. “We have another game with them at Crisler (Arena), and if anyone wants to judge the better team, they can judge then.”
Judgement night came and went.
Taylor never showed up.
The numbers don’t lie: Taylor made one shot in eight attempts. With a frenzied 55-54 win, Minnesota earned one Big Ten championship in one attempt.
They did it at Michigan — the place they hadn’t won since 1982. The same place Taylor said the Wolverines would beat the Gophers.
Minnesota’s players didn’t care where, when, or how they won the title. But don’t think for a second that it isn’t a little sweeter in a sea of maize and blue, right where Taylor lives.
“Maurice made some comments that got us motivated,” point guard Eric Harris said. “He said there was no way we were going to come in here and win. Well, we did.”
Quincy Lewis added, “We knew we had to play Michigan. We knew it was for the Big Ten championship. We didn’t need much more.” Then he paused, his smile growing broader. “It was like throwing kerosene on the fire.”
Crisler Arena veterans said the building was as noisy as it has been all year. Michigan needed a win to keep its NCAA tournament aspirations strong, and the team has a history of rising to the occasion in important games. Besides, even if the Gophers had lost, they would have still had three more chances — two at home — to clinch the conference title.
Put Taylor’s comments aside and all arrows point to a Michigan victory.
But something materialized in the Gophers players between their last victory over Michigan and when they stepped on the court to face the Wolverines again. The Gophers won big games. They won lopsided games. They won close games.
They won every game but one, a six-point setback at Illinois on Jan. 14. Taylor at least was right in that respect. Minnesota didn’t go undefeated in the Big Ten. The team will have to settle for 14-1 and counting.
The game served as a microcosm for both teams’ seasons. The Gophers had players step their games up when they had to. Bobby Jackson had 18 points and nine rebounds. Harris and John Thomas had key baskets down the stretch.
Meanwhile, Michigan had Maceo Baston (13 points, 12 rebounds) and a lot of empty excitement. The Wolverines’ players had plenty of emotion. Once again, however, they lacked killer instinct, a plague that has resulted in five losses by three or fewer points this season.
Taylor himself had chances to put his team in control of the game. But his 0-for-4 second half shooting, foul trouble and crucial miss on the front end of a one-and-one late in the game gave the Gophers enough room to squeeze out another close win — their fifth by five or fewer points this season.
While Minnesota’s players were cutting down the nets at Crisler Arena, Taylor’s whereabouts were unknown. The Wolverines’ locker room remained closed to the media after the game, and the 6-foot-9 junior was nowhere in sight.
Maybe the players stared at the walls and wondered how Minnesota stole the game. Maybe they pondered their chances in the NCAA tournament. Or perhaps they sat — Taylor at least — and wished their locker room had been closed in Minneapolis.