Saturday, March 13, 2010

Just know, this game meant more to us than it meant to you

I’ve already penned some kind words regarding Illinois. And Greg Monroe deserves a whole essay. His drive and dunk along the baseline against Marquette was simply incredible.

But I have to end today with some thoughts on Minnesota’s victory over Michigan St. This win didn’t deliver a ring or a banner. It wasn’t big because of the NCAA tournament implications. (The Gophers still have a lot of work to do.) It wasn’t big because it gave Tubby Smith his 17th consecutive season with 20 wins.

This game was big because Minnesota finally beat Michigan St. The Spartans had beaten the Gophers 8 straight times. They beat the Gophers last year in the Big Ten tournament when it looked like Minnesota’s NCAA tournament life was on the line. (As it turned out, it wasn’t.) They beat the Gophers in East Lansing earlier this year extending an even longer streak of futility for the Gophers at Michigan St. And they beat Minnesota by 1 point in Minnesota in a game in which the Gophers led by 13 in the second half. The Gophers had to overcome that psychological roadblock.

So what if Michigan St. was playing without Chris Allen. Losing to Purdue when Robbie Hummel went down didn't feel any better. This was a big game for the Gophers. It was more than just another Big Ten tournament quarterfinal.

A season with so much potential turned south the moment a freshman recruit was accused of shoplifting and stealing a laptop. It turned south when a junior PG did not pass his classes. But for the players on the court, the season turned with a three game losing streak, capped by the loss to Michigan St. That game defined the season because it defined Minnesota as a team that could not make good decisions in crunch time.

If the Gophers win that game, I truly believe they have a different confidence and swagger for most of the season. Instead, they became an after-thought. And no win at Illinois, no blowout victories over Iowa or Penn St. could change that. Minnesota had to beat Michigan St. to change their mojo.

And it almost didn’t happen. Minnesota again blew a big lead at the end of regulation because Michigan St. played smart. The Spartans took the ball inside and got fouled. They defended with tenacity. The Spartans got rebounds. The Spartans forced their only steals of the game at the end of the game.

But in overtime, after Damian Johnson fouled out, after Draymond Green gave the Spartans a three point lead, the Gophers suddenly shined through. Devoe Joseph hit threes. Lawrence Westbrook drove the lane. And somehow, some way, a team that lost its defensive identity this year, finally got stops.

-“Colton Iverson is about as subtle as a two-by-four” – copyright Shon Morris. This is my new favorite expression. I’ve been down on Colton this year because of his poor efficiency rating. He turns it over too much, misses his free throws, and isn’t that good at finishing around the rim. But against Michigan St., you need toughness. And Colton Iverson delivered that.