This is Amelia Rayno's second season on the Gophers' basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno
Then they were knocked down, landing at what would end up being something like a football dogpile, Williams said.
“All the sudden, Trevor fell, and I ended up falling, and Andre Hollins ended up falling – so we were just all in the middle of the court on the ground for a while,” Williams said. “That’s something – you watch it on TV all the time and you always wish for it and it finally happened. I just didn’t think it was going to happen so fast with the raised court.”
Fans, obviously hungry for the chance, got in there quick, filling the court to its edges in one of the more impressive storms of a stormy season.
It had been a long time, you see – scribes who have been around these parts for longer tried to remember when the last time Williams Arena hosted a storm, and the reckonings went back to the 80s before they drew a blank.
The Gophers last beat a No. 1 team in 1989, when No. 1 Illinois came to town.
But you didn’t need to remind the players how long it had been to draw excitement. After Trevor Mbakwe’s tear on both ends of the court paved the way, and Andre Hollins’ late clutchness sealed their hard work, the Gophers basked in the on-pouring of fans that have grown ever more frustrated with Minnesota winning just three games in the last 11, falling apart once more down the stretch.
Tonight, was about the win, and the moment.
“There’s people grabbing your arms, pushing you, you’re trying to create some space, people are jumping up and down and screaming, you’re screaming, you’re adrenaline is up, you’re happy about the win, it’s hot, you’re sweating like you’re still in the game, but it was a lot of fun at the same time,” said Austin Hollins, still wrapped up in the moment after the team had paraded to the locker room.
The Gophers work is far from done, but for the evening, the glory was worth basking in.
Some quick notes on the 77-73 final:
* I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mbakwe as aggressive as he was in the first half, when he came out with a mission. To the Gophers’ credit, they did a good job of getting him the ball inside the paint, but from there he went to work. He was all over the boards, played great defense on Cody Zeller (who was held to 9 points, 7 rebounds) and battled inside. This is what fans have been wanting to see every time.
* Mbakwe’s eight field goals were a career high.
* The Gophers shooting woes from the outside continued. But it was impressive to see them make it work in other ways, namely working the ball inside, where they had 40 points compared with Indiana’s 22.
* The Gophers had their fourth fewest turnovers of the season with 10, and didn’t turn over the ball at all in the first 10 minutes of the game.
According to Statsheet.com, the Gophers have won every game that they’ve recorded at least 17 assists.
More to come Wednesday. But for now, some leftover quotes on the court-rushing:
Andre Hollins: “It was crazy. It was the hottest I’ve ever felt in my life. I was kind of hyper-ventilating a little bit. It was a great feeling to have such great support from our fans. It was a great game and we needed them tonight.”
“When Trevor was shooting the free throw, he was like, ‘Oh, oh, I think they’re getting ready for us.’ We saw the fans lining up on the baseline of the court and it was just one of those feelings that you’ll never forget.”
Austin Hollins: “It was just one mad rush. I think I got poked in the eye, someone trying to give me a high-five, but it was a lot of fun.”
Rodney Williams: "As supportive as they have been, for them to finally be able to rush the court, I think that’s a big moment for us and for everybody else in the community."
“It means a whole lot. Anytime you get the No. 1 team in the house, you want to play your best, you want to get the W. We were able to feed off Trevor’s play early, Andre came on late, and I think that everybody that came in – Elliott came in with some huge, huge minutes and just everybody, from the bench, to the crowd, to the coaching staff, everybody was locked in.
“Once we got up – my little brother and my cousin found me, and I was able to get a hug and kiss from my daughter too, so that was fun.”
Plus, some Tom Crean gold on Trevor Mbakwe:
“He’s a high-level, high-energy, tough guy, that plays the game at a desperate level. Obviously, I’m biased but there’s no shame in that. He’s been in college a long time, and he’s endured a lot. When we were at Marquette we signed him, I didn’t feel we’d have him for more than two, three years tops. And then he got injured that first year and he left and I left and one thing leads to another. … That’s a grown man that’s one of the best rebounders in the country and certainly in our league and he was the toughest guy on the court tonight.”
I’ll admit, when an entire half passed on Saturday against Lafayette and Gophers freshman Wally Ellenson didn’t play a minute, I thought things were looking pretty dim for him.
Coach Tubby Smith had said the day before that he was concerned about how many minutes the wing would get, frankly remarking that Ellenson was “way behind” in knowing the plays and that practices had been tough for the freshman.
And let’s be honest – Smith typically plays a LOT of guys in the first half. Generally, if you’re in the rotation, you’re getting time in the first half. Meanwhile, Oto Osenieks – a guy tabbed as possibly the player who would lose minutes with Ellenson’s redshirt getting pulled – was playing his heart out and having his best game of the season.
But after the break, with 15:14 remaining in the game, in trotted Ellenson, playing the rest of the game and giving us a few “Hmm” moments.
In retrospect, it was a great opportunity for Ellenson, who entered after the game was clearly a blowout, but who made the most of his chance and inspired praise from Smith afterward.
Ellenson was on the court for 10 minutes before he scored, but when he did, it was an impressive reverse dunk off a ball Osenieks had popped up in the air near the basket as he tried to gain control of it. Then, less than two minutes later, Ellenson followed with a 3-point shot. Just as encouraging were the four boards that Ellenson pulled down.
I’m a big believer in the way confidence can affect performance, and so I think last night’s game was big for Ellenson – playing extended minutes like that, and most of all, succeeding in them – will allow him to not play scared anymore. He’s achieved something.
“I thought Wally did some spectacular offensive rebounding and the dunk over his head and he knocked down a three, so he’s starting to get comfortable and do the things we know he’s capable of doing,” Smith said. “As he improves, as he continues to get confidence, he’ll see more playing time.”
If Smith wanted Ellenson to justify his decision to take away the redshirt this year, he hinted at that Saturday. The Gophers are still a deep team with many other weapons in tow, but as last night showed, the depth and very, very, very long bench can be a strength as long as everyone contributes. Ellenson won’t consistently get 15 minutes in Big Ten play, but he showed Saturday that he is capable of being in the mix.
At the end of last season, Andre Hollins was one of the Gophers' statistical leaders and perhaps the biggest spark plug in the postseason.
So it’s understandable why fans – given the sophomore's modest offensive stats so far this season (he had a total of 10 points coming into the Tennessee St. game) – might wonder what’s “wrong.”
But the truth is, there is still a lot more for the young point guard to learn. It’s only his second college season, and his third in a position that otherwise has been pretty foreign to him his whole life (Hollins played a range from small forward to center as a youth player, so some patience is called for.
Still, a performance like last night’s -- 13 points, five assists and four rebounds -- as the Gophers head into a tough five-game stretch, is highly encouraging. Minnesota has won easily in three games now, and by all appearances has been doing fine without much offensive effort from the sophomore. But make no mistake – this team needs strong performances from Hollins.
“It means a lot,” teammate, junior Austin Hollins said. “He didn’t look to score all the time (on Thursday), but we all know that he’s capable of scoring, and when he scores, it really takes the pressure off of everyone else. I mean it really helps.”
Turnovers were the biggest problem for Hollins last season, when he led the team. This year he’s been very vocal on his desire to cut down on them, and while he certainly hasn’t been perfect, he hasn’t been awful either, averaging 2.6 a game (three on Thursday) compared with 4.3 assists.
“He was better tonight than the other night, and I like to see him taking care of the ball,” coach Tubby Smith said. “I was pleased with him tonight, distributing the ball. … I think he’s understanding more of what a point guard role should be and that’s helped.”
That part will come as he gets more confident in the offense and in his role. But as a “scoring” point guard, the success from the field last night was particularly encouraging. Hollins hit two of three 3-pointers (both in the first half) and converted five of his seven shots overall. Hollins was shooting just 13 percent from the field coming in.
He wasn’t shooting the ball particularly great the first two games and I just told him ‘Keep shooting’” Austin Hollins said. “That doesn’t mean that he can’t shoot because he wasn’t hitting any shots. And he did, and he started knocking them down tonight. You could tell he was playing with a lot more confidence. It’s nice to see all that hard work pay off.”
Last night’s double-overtime loss to Illinois can be boiled down to two things:
ORLANDO -- Well, the optimism of a little over 4 hours ago has been replaced by a combination of bad luck and harsh reality when it comes to the Gophers men's basketball team. Once again, Minnesota gave up a barrage of perimeter shots in the first half here in Orlando, and once again it led to a halftime deficit -- this time 37-28 against Dayton in the Old Spice Classic title game. On Thursday, the Gophers trailed DePaul by 10 thanks to poor three-point defense. It was the same story Friday against Indiana State. Both times, though, Minnesota adjusted and made big plays down the stretch to pull out comeback victories.
Against Dayton, however, there was no such luck. The Flyers kept coming in waves. And to compound things, senior forward Trevor Mbakwe went down with a knee injury early in the second half and did not return. He will have an MRI -- scheduled for Monday, per a Gophers spokesman -- to determine the extent of the damage. And while we should all be cautioned to avoid jumping to conclusions, Mbakwe's body language showed obvious pain and his in-game tweet after leaving the bench with a huge ice pack on his knee also spoke volumes: "Lord please get me through this." As Tubby Smith said, "It didn't look good."
But Smith also said, "We'll have to see. Hopefully, it's nothing serious." Mbakwe also tweeted: "Thanks everyone for your prayers. I really appreciate it the support. Tough times don't last but tough ppl do” and “Minor setback for a MAJOR comeback.” Knees are tricky things. So again, let's not assume the worst until the results of the MRI are in.
Even if the Mbakwe news is good, however, Sunday's game exposed Minnesota's defensive flaws over a full 40 minutes. The Gophers hadn't seen a guard like Kevin Dillard yet, and he gave them a taste of what they'll get in the Big Ten. It wasn't pleasant to swallow, as Dillard -- the tournament MVP -- carved them up for 19 points, 10 assists and seven steals. When he wasn't driving and scoring, Dillard was almost flawlessly setting up teammates on the perimeter. Dayton made 12 of 27 three-pointers. Afterward, Smith acknowledged, "We haven't defended the three very well all year long." Indeed. The Gophers were decent at shooting them (7 of 18 Sunday) but have now allowed 50 made threes on the season.
In any event, we'll see how fast Minnesota can regroup and what the news is on Mbakwe. The Gophers are home against Virginia Tech on Wednesday and USC on Saturday. For now, the difference between 6-0 and 6-1 feels pretty significant.
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