It had been a long, long time since Kiara Buford had seen this kind of emotion from a crowd at Williams Arena. Through the final minutes of the Gophers' 76-65 upset of No. 9 Ohio State, most of the 5,626 fans were standing and applauding and hollering, enjoying every second of the team's first victory over a ranked opponent in nearly three years.
It might not have happened if the Gophers had not kept their own emotions in check. Coming off poor performances in losses to Nebraska and Wisconsin, they resisted both panic and self-pity, believing they could beat the Buckeyes if they stuck to a well-designed game plan. Their determination lifted them to a signature victory, their first over Ohio State at home since January 2008.
The Gophers shot 50 percent and led by as many as 14 points, stunning a team that came in with a 20-1 record and 31 victories in its past 33 games. Their cool stood in stark contrast to the Buckeyes' meltdown. Ohio State, one of the best-shooting teams in the nation, made just 34 percent of its shots and 14 of 24 free throws.
Point guard Samantha Prahalis and Minneapolis South graduate Tayler Hill combined to score 51 points. But the Buckeyes committed ill-advised fouls, put up poor shots and could not put the brakes on the Gophers (12-11, 4-5 Big Ten), who allowed themselves a little shouting when it was all over.
"Our team has learned how to fight adversity," said Buford, who finished with 15 points and seven assists. "We've been through a lot. Those couple of losses, we let it go and learned from it.
"I thought [the crowd] was amazing. To hear everyone cheering for us was a big statement."
The Gophers had not defeated a ranked team since a victory over No. 23 Notre Dame in the first round of the 2009 NCAA tournament. Though they were huge underdogs Sunday, coach Pam Borton said they actually matched up well against Ohio State (20-2, 7-2).
The sharp-shooting Buckeyes had gotten even more accurate during a five-game winning streak, shooting 51 percent from the floor in that span. Against the Gophers, they made only eight of 35 shots in the first half and missed from everywhere.
The Gophers experienced just the opposite. Forwards Katie Loberg, Micaella Riche and Kionna Kellogg piled up the points inside, while Rachel Banham hit a pair of three-pointers as the Gophers shot 52 percent in the first half. Buford's fast-break layup gave them a 7-6 lead less than three minutes into the game, and they never trailed again.
After leading by as many as 12 in the first half, the Gophers saw their lead dwindle to one when Prahalis opened the second half with a three-pointer and a jumper. They answered with an 11-4 run. Prahalis engineered another rally with back-to-back three-pointers that cut the lead to 63-59 with 5 minutes, 51 seconds remaining, but Kellogg responded with a three-pointer to spark a run that expanded the lead to 13.
Ohio State coach Jim Foster lamented his team's lack of control. In addition to rushing shots, the Buckeyes sent two of the Gophers' best free-throw shooters, Banham and Sari Noga, to the line 11 times in the second half. They made them all as the Gophers hit 16 of 17 free throws.
"I didn't do a good job of preparing our team between the ears," he said. "We were undisciplined and unfocused, and we couldn't get out of it."
As pleased as Borton was that the Gophers put on a show for their largest crowd of the season, she has one more wish: Don't let this be the last.
"We played hard, and we played smart," she said. "They believed in each other and played great as a team. When we do that, I love this team."