Saturday, March 15, 2008

Hoffarber's Heroics, Johnson's Tenacity Lead To Upset

"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."
Michael Corleone, Godfather III.

I wrote this team off earlier this week. I said something like "They are what they are," suggesting they can beat cupcakes and can't pull off an upset.

I wrote this team off tonight. After building a huge lead and causing havoc on my emotions in an up and down second half, the Gophers all but handed the game to DJ White and the Indiana Hoosiers.

And then Blake Hoffarber, he of ESPY fame, hit a shot that no Minnesota fan will ever forget. The Gophers shouldn't have been down 58-57 with 1.5 seconds left, but they were. So, Tubby Smith diagrammed a play to get down the court and get a desperation shot off. He diagrammed a play for Dan Coleman. Travis Busch lofted a pass. Hoffarber rose adjacent to the foul line, caught the lob pass, pivoted to his left, and put up a high arcing prayer.

It was answered and the Gophers did what they couldn't do all season, and something they hadn't done in years: Upset a favored, ranked opponent. Final: Minnesota 59, Indiana 58. It took a Laettner-esque play, but we'll take it!

Hoffarber's heroics caused the Minnesota bench to explode. Lawrence McKenzie, Lawrence Westbrook, and everyone else, swarmed Hoffarber in the far corner of the gymnasium. Tubby Smith, ohhhhh, Tubby Smith, the man can jump. He leaped with joy, probably shocked, and was quickly surrounded by Vince Taylor and a jubiliantly round Joe Esposito. All because a freshman sharpshooter had given his team a ticket to play another meaningful game.

And while Hoffarber will steal the highlights on the various networks and the headlines in the papers tomorrow, what might get overlooked is the Gophers played, undermanned mind you, their best game of the season. They jumped out to a 16 point lead in the first half. How?

Amazingly, with Spencer Tollackson sitting out with a bum ankle, the Gophers beat up on Indiana on the glass in the first half. And what makes this even more miraculous is Dan Coleman found himself on the bench just two minutes into the game. That left Damian Johnson and Jon Williams to play big minutes against Indiana's tough front line. They couldn't stop DJ White, but along with a group of guards that battled and won the war on the boards in the first half.

The Gophers had twice the energy of the Hoosiers in the early going. Lawrence McKenzie was flying around and hitting in transition. Johnson scored seven of the first nine points and played the role Lawrence Westbrook did against Northwestern a day earlier. Johnson finished with 17 points, a career-high, and he created multiple second chance opportunities that were very needed down the stretch.

Indiana eventually calmed down. Interim head coach Dan Dakich went to a big lineup, as both Coleman and Johnson found themselves on the bench with foul trouble. Deandre Thomas--who reminds me a lot of a slimmer Oliver Miller--played huge minutes alongside DJ White. It was during the second 10 minutes of the first half that Thomas and White carried the Hoosiers back into the game. It was hard for them to do anything but exploit Minnesota's size disadvantage.

Consider the lineup we were playing at this point: Westbrook, McKenzie, Nolen, Travis Busch and Williams. Yes, Travis Busch. Don't laugh. His minutes were huge. Tubby first tried Jamal Abu-Shamala in this role. JAS quickly showed he didn't have the mettle to battle with the IU big men. Busch did.

Despite all of that hard work in the first half, Indiana crept back in the game. Down seven at halftime, the Hoosiers scored the first seven of the second half--the Gophers went scoreless for about the first five minutes. But then the Gophers settled down--despite Dan Coleman picking up two more quick fouls.

Again it was Johnson creating hustle scores. McKenzie rose for a clutch three. And all of a sudden we were in crunch time, and despite our best efforts to give the Hoosiers the game, the Gophers walked out victorious.

In reality, the Gophers should have won by five or so. Up two with 10 seconds left, Al Nolen found a wide open Coleman under the basket. Instead of going up strong, Coleman reverted to his tendency to play soft and tried to sneak a layup passed DJ White. It wasn't happening. White blocked the shot. After a timeout, Eric Gordon drove the length of the floor and drew a foul with 3.5 left on the clock. He missed both free throws, but White pushed Williams out of his way and tipped in the rebound and drew a foul. All of a sudden it's 57-57 with 3.1 left and White with a chance to give the Hoosiers the lead. But .... he missed. Whew.

Not really. White goes over the back of McKenzie and gets his own rebound and the zebras decided that McKenzie had fouled White. Two more tries to ice it. First shot? Miss. Second? Make.

And just when I had written this team off yet again, Hoffarber delivers unexpected heroics I'll never forget.

Some Likely Repetitive Superlatives:

Damian Johnson: He hit from the outside. He made his free throws. He threw his body on the floor for loose balls. He did this playing almost every minute out sized at the power forward position. If Lawrence Westbrook was the surprise player who carried Minnesota versus Northwestern, it was Johnson who picked up the slack against Indiana. Johnson scored a career-high 17 points before fouling out late in the second half. Ya'll understand why I loved him all season?

Travis Busch: I know, I know, I'm part of the peanut gallery who questions why he ever plays. But with Tollackson out, with Coleman in quick foul trouble in each half, with Williams, Coleman and Johnson each with four fouls, it was Busch who came in and battle with Deandre Thomas and DJ White. Jabal Abu-Shamala had his chance, but he refused to play physical. Not Busch. This guy was game. He made at least one brain dead pass, but his hustle and his willingness to throw his body into much bigger men was quite impressive.

Hustle: All around. 40 minutes. For the first time all season. Great to see.

Some criticisms

Dan Coleman: He picked up two quick--like in two minutes--first half fouls and sat the remainder of the half. Second half, different story, right? Wrong. Two minutes. This time two absolutely silly fouls. He hammered DJ White on a clear breakaway on one of them. Young man gotsta play smarter than that. Worse, perhaps, is with the game on the line, at the end of a scrambled possessions with 10 seconds left in the game with the Gophers up 57-55, Al Nolen found Coleman with a clear path to the basket. Coleman ducked, went up weak, and found a waiting DJ White to send his shot back. Coleman takes this ball up strong. Takes it up to throw it down and the game would have been over.

One Man Back: Multiple times tonight the Gophers gave the Hoosiers easy hoops on breakouts. I imagine this happened in part because the Gophers were concentrating on crashing the boards because they were without big men most of the night. Nonetheless, these are mental mistakes and need to be corrected.

Up Next: The Gophers face those pesky 10th seeded Illinois Illini for the right to play in the Big Ten title game. Minnesota #6 vs. Illinois #10. Minnesota favored, right? Wrong. Illinois has beaten Minnesota an astonishing 19 straight times. Nevermind the cliche about beating teams three straight times. Try 20? I'll try and recoup for a preview in the morning, and the Gophers ought to be doing the same. They are back on the floor Saturday afternoon for a chance to play for the Big Ten championship.

Just when I thought they were done .....


lurker said...

Great post, pjs. Great game. Freaking Hoffarber, how bout that kid.

Friend Of Tubby said...

Fun game to watch. Just got home to Chicago from Indy.

Happy for players, fans, and coaches.

Tubtastic said...

I was swearing up a storm last night -- talking to myself, screaming at the refs, p.o.'ed that a game we deserved was ripped away from us. And then the Hoff delivers the win I've been craving all year.

Please, please, please follow that win up with a quality game against IL....!

PJS said...

Yeah, Tubtastic, I had a similar experience. Miss PJS had to suggest I calm down during that heartwrenching last 10.5 seconds. The Coleman miss, the Gordon drive, the White rebound and putback, the WHite miss, the bogus second White foul, the free throw make and the Hoffarber miracle!

So what if I broke a lighter by throwing it against the wall! Well worth it!

OK, so I might need help!

The Sports Guy said...

I couldn't sleep last night either. Picking up the keg a little earlier today (hehe). I guess the party starts at 3!

Eight more wins to an NCAA title!

From the Barn said...

And PJS continues to pretend I don't exist. I smell fear.

Clem's Nuts said...

Tubtastic, I am with you. I was packing my bags for a road trip to introduce the refereeing crew to my 38oz 1959 Louisville Slugger . But then Harfarber, as the lovable rube behind me at the Barn calls him, does what apparently he does...

I have not seen anything like that since the down by 9 with 51 seconds to play at IU in 1997. I was stupefied.

It just doesn't happen to my teams...

Truzenzuzex said...

Congratulations on that big win, guys. I only wish it didn't have Laetner similarities -- I so hate to relive that all the time.


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