The Gophers came into the winter of 2017-18 with a 31-59 record in Big Ten regular-season games in Pitino’s tenure. There have been injuries and other excuses offered, but 31-59 is putrid even by Minnesota’s standards over the past two decades.
These Gophers opened Big Ten play on Sunday at Ohio State with a performance so distressing that it more than trumped the earlier respectable play in nonconference games. The smallish crowd for Nebraska (announced at 9,624) on Wednesday night was a demonstration that once again apathy was winning out over loyalty with those regulars that used to fill most of Williams Arena for Big Ten games.
Another clunker in the home half of the early pair of conference games and there was nothing to be done in four nonconference walkovers to come this month to restore interest before the Big Ten schedule resumes Jan. 3 at Wisconsin.
Nebraska was an athletic bunch that had squeezed into the ratings at No. 24 with a 7-1 record. This was a “prove-it” road game for the Cornhuskers, but it was more than that for Gophers:
It was a show-us-something on the new white floor for Pitino’s bunch a month into Year 6.
And the Gophers did exactly that. They looked to be slightly overmatched for much of the first half, and they looked ready to get put away in the early minutes of the second half. Amir Coffey, a junior and now at a point where it’s time to become a star, would not allow it.
He had an outstanding five-minute stretch in the first half. He scored 14 points, including 9 of 10 free throws, and pushed the Gophers to a 36-32 lead.
Then, he committed two fouls in 15 seconds, that gave him three, and he had to sit down for the last four minutes, and it was Nebraska 44-39 at halftime. It got worse before it got better in the second half and then, presto, Coffey was once again the best player on the elevated floor and the Gophers were pushing back.
First, the Cornhuskers were sloppy with possessions to give the Gophers’ comeback a boost, and then it they couldn’t make a shot, and finally the game belonged to Coffey and the home team:
Gophers 85, Cornhuskers 78.
This might be an overstatement to many, but the opinion here is that this was as important as any game Pitino has coached in what currently stands as a failed reign as the keeper of the most famous barn in Minnesota.
Now, with the Coffey-led comeback, and with forward Eric Curry expected back before the trip to Madison … there’s hope again for a first-division finish and a Barn that’s not half-empty for future Big Ten games.
The Gophers were down 58-46 when the first TV timeout came with 15:21 remaining. Coffey came out with a dunk, and after that, he basically owned the game.
The ongoing struggle of Isaiah Washington to find his way in college basketball forced Pitino to put the basketball in the hands of the 6-8 Coffey. There’s a difference between ball-handling duties as an off guard, as in Amir’s past, and being the de facto point guard.
Unsolicited, I had been hearing from smart basketball people that this did not look as if it was going to work. Too many bad possessions; not enough good looks from Amir.
On Wednesday, Coffey quieted those doubts. He was the Gopher that you wanted with the basketball, the Gopher making the decisions. This was Coffey’s 60th game — he missed a bunch last season with a shoulder injury — and it was his best.
The numbers were terrific: He was 8-for-16 from the field, made two of the Gophers’ three 3s, was 14 of 17 at the line and scored a career-high 32 points. And getting it done with these stakes, going against athletic guards, gave a 32-minute look at the Gophers’ greatness we expected when Coffey signed with Pitino.
“I thought he single-handedly kept Minnesota hanging around,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “He also did a great job [defensively] on James Palmer Jr. The way Coffey was going … we didn’t play good enough basketball to win.”
Nope. This win went to the home team, and to a coach who needed it more than any of his prior 96 at Minnesota.