Here are all the things I remember about the Gophers men’s basketball team defeating Michigan 55-54 on Feb. 26, 1997 — 20 years ago Sunday — to clinch the Big Ten title.
• I was there. That’s important. I was the beat reporter covering Gophers men’s hockey at The Minnesota Daily that season, but the game was big enough that we sent two writers — myself and beat writer Todd Zolecki, who now covers the Philadelphia Phillies, along with a photographer — to a Wednesday night game in Ann Arbor. Lest you think this meant three plane tickets, think again. We drove, as usual, the 10 hours to Michigan.
• Despite entering the game 24-2, the Gophers trailed the Wolverines by eight points with 10 minutes to play and by four with two minutes left. But Bobby Jackson (who else?) saved the day. I remember him hitting a big baseline jumper down the stretch. Then, as Michigan tried to hold for the final shot, fellow guard Eric Harris dived for a steal and knocked the ball to Jackson, who was fouled. He made one free throw with 2.9 seconds left, providing the final margin.
• The memory of covering this game is about as strong as any other game I’ve ever covered. It stands out not only because of the frantic finish but also because of these work-related points: 1) After the game, Zolecki and I each had about 45 minutes to write one story each (his was the game story, mine the sidebar) and combine on another story comprised of notes from the game. These days, that would feel like plenty of time. As a college journalist who didn’t often work on deadline, it felt like a nanosecond. 2) The Daily’s modem connection for sending in stories remotely was often tenuous at best.
But somehow, some way, we not only wrote our stories but magically sent them from Michigan to Minnesota. I still remember talking to Quincy Lewis, a sophomore on the team, about some trash-talking the Wolverines had done. “That was like throwing gasoline on the fire,” he said, as I practically sprinted out of the victorious interview area to write my story.
• Remember, this was a year before the Big Ten added a postseason tournament. The regular-season title was the only one up for grabs. The Gophers claimed it for the first time in 15 years, and tough wins such as the one at Michigan were the hallmark of that Final Four team.
• Because we were crazy, we drove back from Michigan the night after the game, arriving back in Minneapolis around 8 a.m. Thursday. I can’t remember if I went to class that day. I do remember it rained on our drive back, and it was so hard at one point that Zolecki, driving, turned off the wipers because they were so useless and declared he was just going to “use the force” to get us home. Hey, we made it.
• I don’t know if you can compare any Gophers team before or after that one to the 1996-97 squad. But I will say this year’s team has a flair for the dramatic and a defensive spirit that the team of 20 years ago would have to admire.
• Whenever people mention the 1996-97 Final Four eventually having to be vacated by the academic fraud scandal, I tend to think of that game at Michigan. You can wipe out record books, but you can’t wipe out memories. I will never forget that game and that team.