By: Sam Ekstrom
However unimpressive the Gophers looked in the first half of Saturday’s loss to Indiana, their second-half comeback spoke greater volumes about the character of Tubby Smith’s team.
Trailing by a game-high 23 points at the break, Minnesota could have easily coasted through the second half against an Indiana team that entered the season atop the national polls.
But the eighth-ranked Gophers came out firing after halftime, cutting the deficit to 13 by the first official TV timeout and eventually pulling within one possession during a frantic late-game scramble. Minnesota came one Trevor Mbakwe rebound away from having a shot to tie the game in the closing seconds.
It always helps to have a motivated class of seniors, and the Gophers relied on theirs to spark the comeback. Rodney Williams Jr. and Mbakwe set the tone for the second half with three early dunks---two put-backs and one alley-oop---that got the Maroon and Gold within shouting distance.
Then it was the Hollins tandem. Austin and Andre---both from Tennessee, but unrelated---combined to score 24 points after halftime and eight points in the final minute. The duo also shot a stellar 8-of-17 (47%) from beyond the arc.
Don’t forget the halftime adjustments by Tubby Smith either. Trailing 52-29, analysts criticized the veteran coach for his defensive strategy and untimely substitutions. Plus, his team simply didn’t appear ready for what Indiana threw at them. But Smith’s Golden Gophers were a changed team for the final 20 minutes.
Minnesota held Indiana to 36 second-half points on just six made field-goals and 29% shooting (6-for-21) after surrendering 52 points and 66% shooting in the opening frame. The Gophers’ full court press wreaked havoc on Indiana’s offensive game as the Hoosiers turned the ball over 11 times in the second half.
Equally impressive was the offensive turnaround. The first-half Gophers, flustered and turnover-prone, were suddenly poised and efficient after halftime. They used excellent ball rotation to combat Indiana’s stifling zone and, rather than force the ball down low against All-American Cody Zeller, reverted to an efficient jump-shooting game and attacked the offensive glass, notching nine offensive boards in the second half.
Indiana was reportedly dejected after the game---a game they won over a top-10 opponent. Meanwhile, the losing team heads home with plenty of positives to build on. Minnesota will face highly-ranked Michigan at a likely raucous Williams Arena on Thursday.
Despite Saturday’s loss, fans saw a refreshing resiliency from a team that has let them down so frequently in recent years. The 2012-13 Gophers have strong leadership, NBA-caliber talent in their starting five, and, from what we saw in Bloomington, plenty of heart.
This squad seems different than past years’ teams that have been defined by fast starts and sputtering finishes. The 2008-09 group began 16-1, only to make a quiet NCAA Tournament exit at 22-11. In 2010-2011, an 11-1 record turned into 17-14 and a ninth place Big Ten finish. Most recently, Smith’s 2011-12 team dropped off from a 12-1 start to finish 6-12 in the conference.
While Smith has built plenty of hope in his Minnesota tenure with a combined 68-12 (largely non-conference) record before New Year’s Day, his squads have faltered to a 50-60 mark after January 1st.
However, Tubby’s teams have a litany of injuries and off-court incidents that have marred potential NCAA Tournament chances: Royce White’s suspension, Al Nolen’s foot injury (2010) and academic ineligibility (2011), Devoe Joseph’s departure, Trevor Mbakwe’s torn ACL, etc.
At last, the Gophers appear to have all the pieces in place.
There’s no doubt Saturday’s defeat was tough to swallow. But, unlike past seasons, it won’t mark the start of Minnesota’s downfall. Instead, it showed us that this team doesn’t view collapsing as an option.