We can't remember a night like Tuesday, when the Gophers won a track meet against Iowa (preferring to finish the race as the tortoise instead of the hare, but more on that later) and the Wolves came back to win at Phoenix. Both victories were largely influenced by two players -- redshirt freshman Charles Buggs for the Gophers and rookie Shabazz Muhammad for the Wolves -- who have typically only seen playing time in mop-up duty this season. Both had breakout games that, while they might not be indicative of greatness to come, at the very least rescued their teams in varying degrees of must-win games.
First, Buggs: He had played exactly 21 minutes this season -- 2 in Big Ten play -- before Tuesday. He had attempted three shots, making two. But with Oto Osenieks out with a knee injury and two bigs in foul trouble, Buggs was the spark the Gophers needed. He had 11 of his career-high 13 points in the first half, looking smooth and confident shooting from long distance. His three-pointer late in the half made it 45-41 Gophers and helped them take a halftime lead. His only bucket in the second half came at a critical time. A 5-0 run had helped surging Iowa get within 68-66, but his steal and layup ignited a 12-1 run that proved essential. That put Minnesota ahead 80-67. The Gophers did not make a field goal the rest of the game -- the final 8:30 -- but they made 15 free throws and never let Iowa reclaim the lead in a 95-89 victory. There was wisdom in the slowdown approach the Gophers took on a lot of possessions after taking that 13-point lead, but there is also danger in choking off your own momentum. It almost cost them on Tuesday, but huge performances by Austin Hollins, DeAndre Mathiue and the unlikeliest hero in Buggs were enough to get a MUST-HAVE victory. It moves the Gophers' conference record to 7-9, with three very good Big Ten wins (Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa). An upset win at Michigan and a home win over Penn State to close the season would seal an NCAA bid. A competitive loss to Michigan, a win over Penn State and at least one win in the Big Ten Tourney would at least give Minnesota (which bumped up to No. 43 in the RPI with last night's win) a reasonable shot at making the Big Dance. Anything short of that would be precarious at best in our minds. But that Iowa win was one they had to have.
Next, Bazzy: He's played just 140 minutes for the Wolves this season, but a combination of injuries and him forcing the issue with good work in practice have given him a little more run lately. He has 89 of those minutes in February, including 57 in his last three games. Tuesday was easily his most complete game as an NBA player -- 8 for 13 from the floor, six rebounds, a pair of steals and 20 must-have points in a 110-101 victory over Phoenix. The Wolves' playoff hopes are pretty much dangling by a thread, but they would have been far more precarious without a win over the Suns. They are now 5.5 games behind the Suns, who occupy the No. 8 spot at 33-23 in the brutal West. They're still 4 behind ninth-seeded (and out of the playoffs) Memphis. But there are still 25 games left. A loss last night would have been a two-game swing, putting them 7.5 behind Phoenix and all but dead. Now there is a glimmer of life thanks to a monster game from Kevin Love and an the unlikely contribution from Muhammad. Most impressive was his determination. The Wolves trailed 81-75 entering the fourth quarter, which is usually a recipe for a road loss with this team. Muhammad had 10 points in the final quarter, several massive rebounds and one huge assist, dishing to Corey Brewer after fighting for an offensive rebound and setting up a layup that made it 102-97. He is a terrific rebounder for his size, with 19 in his last three games over a total of 57 minutes. He presents matchup problems as a post-up option against certain wings/guards because of his strength. And if he stays within himself, as Rick Adelman has preached, he can help.
Like we noted before, none of this guarantees anything about what Buggs, the Gophers, Muhammad or the Wolves will do for the rest of the season. But for one night at least, we were treated to two massive pleasant surprises. We'll take what we can get.