A glorious first half of basketball turned into a typical Big Ten brawl in the second half on Thursday night. And when it was done, the Gophers had a 70-67 victory that ended Purdue's 10-game winning streak and restored thoughts of a lofty finish for the home team.
This was a must-win for the Gophers, only if the goals were to remain a contender to finish in the Big Ten's top four and to land a seed from which damage can be done in the NCAA tournament.
If this one had gotten away, the Gophers still were alive to squeeze into the NCAA bracket for a double-digit seed, but that's a position from which the tournament generally comes to a quick end.
The Gophers are 2-3 in the Big Ten, with three road losses as underdogs. When you look at the next five games, the only roadblock is a rematch at Purdue -- meaning Tubby Smith's club should reach February and the stretch drive above .500.
Pregame, there was concern expressed that Trevor Mbakwe's recent endeavors in the social media would be a distraction for the Gophers. And what then was provided was more evidence that the fear of "distraction'' is the most overhyped element in big-time sports.
The Cam Newton situation was going to be a distraction for the Auburn football team, right?
We should know by now that these are talented young athletes who wake up every morning feeling bullet-proof, no matter what happened yesterday.
Mbakwe's punishment for this week's misdemeanor arrest turned out to be sitting for the game's first 3 minutes, 44 seconds. And he played 12 minutes in what was the poor, distracted Gophers' most impressive half since they visited Puerto Rico in November.
How about Sunday's comeback at Ohio State? That was more a case of the Buckeyes taking on the roles of overrated stumblebums in the second half.
On this night, the Gophers faced the best that JaJuan Johnson -- Purdue's fabulous 6-10 forward -- had to offer and came out of that first half with a 41-40 lead.
The Boilermakers arrived in The Barn allowing 61.5 points and 40.4 percent field-goal shooting in the Big Ten. The Gophers lit 'em up for those 41 points on 16-for-29 (55.2 percent) shooting. Only the fact Johnson put up Purdue's first nine and finished with 18 points kept it close at halftime.
The amount of hand-fighting increased and the buckets were tougher to come by in the second half. And that's when you could see the Mbakwe effect on the boards and defensively.
"He is such a load,'' Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "You have to give him a lot of attention. He's in the tradition of a Maurice Lucas-type power forward. He's a stud.''
Mbakwe had six of his 10 rebounds in the second half. He stayed stuck on seven points, which was more a reflection on his mates being late to react than Purdue's defense.
Several times down the stretch Mbakwe had a defender sealed and was signaling for the ball. The crowd groaned when Al Nolen didn't make a pass inside. The crowd groaned when Rodney Williams didn't make a pass inside.
The Boilermakers played the final 15 minutes with Johnson and a bunch of guys 6-5 or shorter -- meaning, the customers were right in wanting to see Mbakwe with the ball in the post.
Fortunately for the Gophers, Johnson cooled off in the second half, and E'Twaun Moore's offensive game looked more like Hosea Crittenden's than that of an all-Big Ten player. Moore was 2-for-14 from the field, with misses ranging from open threes to blown layups.
In contrast, the Gophers had Blake Hoffarber having one of those nights (4-for-6 on threes, 10-for-15 overall, 26 points), and that was the firepower needed to get the Gophers back in the chase for the top four.
Thus, it was a nice victory, although it would have been less nerve-wracking if the Gophers had found Mbakwe down low in those closing minutes. He had one shot in the second half, and that's difficult to underst ...
Wait! Here's a thought:
Maybe that was Tubby's unannounced discipline for the big guy. Maybe the lads on the outside were ordered not to throw Mbakwe the ball.
Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. • email@example.com