After Minnesota beat Penn State in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament, Coach Tubby Smith was asked what his team needed to do to beat Michigan State. Coach Smith didn’t hesitate in answering, “We need to rebound, all of Coach Tom Izzo’s teams rebound well.”
Most people believed going into the game that the Gophers would play well but fall short to the Spartans. In the two earlier match-ups in the season, Michigan State beat Minnesota 60-53 and 65-64.
The Gophers played their usual tough on the ball court defense. Minnesota also dove for loose balls with abandon. However, there was something different watching the Gophers battle the Spartans in their third match-up of the season.
Minnesota was actively contesting every rebound with passion and energy as if the outcome of the game depended on each rebound. Coach Smith had clearly impressed upon his team the need for every player to fight, scrap and claw for every rebound.
Was it a coincidence that in the first two games won by Michigan State that the Spartans won the war of the boards but in the final matchup, the Gophers grabbed more rebounds?
No Gopher had more than six rebounds. Eight Gophers had at least four rebounds. Minnesota’s rebounding effort was a complete team effort.
One play late in the second half epitomized the commitment by the entire team to attack the glass. On an errant shot, Colton Iverson locked into a battle with a Michigan State post player that caused several Spartans to commit their attention to him. As a result, Damian Johnson flew in for the rebound and an uncontested dunk.
The Gophers played with more confidence on the offensive end than almost any game of the season with the possible exception of their early season win over Butler in the Anaheim Classic. The curious aspect of the confidence exuding from the Gophers is that as a team they didn’t shoot well hitting less than 40 percent of their shots.
Michigan State gave Minnesota’s sharp shooter Blake Hoffarber little breathing room but it didn’t matter as he knocked down four from beyond the arc on his way to scoring 14 points. Iverson showed patience in the paint getting solid position on his way to scoring 12 points on six for nine shooting.
The big man on campus for Minnesota that hit shots in the clutch was converted point guard, Devoe Joseph. Joseph hit two three point shots in overtime. On one shot, Joseph emphatically waived his teammates down on the low block to allow him to break down his defender before draining the long jumper.
As Joseph raced down the court, he had the look of a player that was not going be denied. The Gophers would never trail in the game again.
The Gophers did however make a couple of silly plays in the final minute of the game to keep people in the stands until the final seconds.
Westbrook inexplicably dribbled with his head down and turned the ball over in the backcourt. Ralph Sampson III for some reason felt that he needed to foul Draymond Green. In his career, Green is 2-13 on shots from beyond the arc.
In a post-game interview on the court, coach Tubby Smith aptly described why his team was able to beat the Michigan State Spartans, “We played with a lot of heart and toughness.”
Minnesota played a hard fought game against the Spartans and deserved to win. The Gophers just may be rewarded for their efforts with a bid to the NCAA tournament. A win tomorrow over Purdue would undoubtedly put the Gophers into the big dance.
When asked what the Gophers needed to do to advance to the finals of the Big Ten tournament, Coach Smith said his team would have to play with the “same heart and toughness because Purdue is as tough as any team in the country...we are going to have to take care of the basketball.”
If Minnesota limits their turnovers and play with intensity, the Gophers could find themselves in the Big Ten Tournament Championship game and dancing the following week in the NCAA Tournament.