Elite 8: Gophers 80, UCLA 72

  • Article by: BRIAN WICKER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 27, 1997 - 10:00 PM

Reserves were going to be a key factor when the Gophers met the Bruins, and the tournament trail had been particularly grueling for Minnesota.

Point guard Eric Harris, after spraining his shoulder against Clemson, couldn't lift his right arm over his head the day before the game. Substitute guard Charles Thomas had a sore back after playing 28 minutes. Going two overtimes with the Tigers also sapped energy from the healthy Gophers. Their usual nine-man rotation, so successful in wearing down opponents in the second half all season, would be just as much about self-preservation against the Bruins, whose bench didn't run as deep.

"Right now, it's all mental," forward Sam Jacobson said. "Both teams are in the same position. Both teams are physically worn out. But when the game starts, your mind can overcome your body."

Quincy Lewis, one of those key reserves, needed to put part of the Clemson game out of his mind. He missed two free throws with 8.2 seconds left, allowing the Tigers to score a buzzer-beating layup and send the game into overtime. He was at peace after the game, knowing the Gophers' victory presented a chance to redeem himself.

"If we had lost, a lot of folks might say that I lost the game," Lewis said. "I would know that basketball is a 40-minute game and that, if we had played better, the game would not have come down to those free throws.

"I also would have felt bad, that those two free throws could have made the difference. When we fell behind by six in the first overtime [against Clemson], I was feeling down, but I didn't give up on this team . . . or on myself."

Even when the Gophers trailed by 10 points early in the second half against UCLA (24-8), Haskins stuck with his usual substitution pattern. The Bruins, meanwhile, stuck basically with six players after starting center Jelani McCoy went out midway through the first half when he reinjured a bruised sternum.

After making things difficult for the Gophers with their aggressive defense and high-energy offense, the Bruins grew tired. Minnesota, meanwhile, grew more legs.

Lewis led Minnesota on a 16-4 run by scoring 10 of his 15 points, rallying the Gophers back into the game. The Big Ten champions made their move behind the likes of Lewis, Charles Thomas, forward Miles Tarver and center Trevor Winter -- all substitutes.

With the 6-9 McCoy on the bench, the Gophers scored 14 of their 18 second-half field goals on layups or dunks. After a Courtney James free throw broke a 57-all tie with just under 5 minutes remaining, the Gophers never trailed. All that was left was to do some We're-Going-to-the-Final-Four dancing after the game with CBS analyst Al McGuire, who also received a fat kiss on the cheek from Haskins.

"My job is to come in the game and be aggressive," Lewis said. "I try to be a spark for the team. [The reserves] got on a run. We passed it off to the first team, and they carried it home."

Playing 23 minutes at what he termed 60 percent, Harris winced while putting on his Final Four T-shirt and fended off celebratory hugs. Charles Thomas ignored the tightness in his back to score 14 points in 21 minutes. Guard Bobby Jackson, named the tournament's most valuable player, fought off exhaustion to again lead the team with 18 points.

Oh, yeah. Lewis showed that he could hit free throws -- making all seven that he tried.

"We believe in ourselves, and coach believes in us, too," Jackson said. "Who else would have ever believed Minnesota would be in the Final Four? This is a dream come true."

A standing-room-only crowd stuffed into Williams Arena that night, waiting for hours for the Gophers to come home. They erupted into their biggest cheers at about 11:30 p.m., when the team climbed onto the court. Amid all the screams, highlights and versions of the "Rouser," some of the players took turns at the microphone.

"We just want to say we love y'all," Harris told the crowd, "and we couldn't have made it without y'all."

Moment of the game: In the midst of the Gophers' 16-4 run midway through the second half, James fed center John Thomas cutting down the lane for a rim-rattling dunk. The slam cut the Bruins' lead to 48-45 and their composure to zero. "We needed something and that got us going," the senior captain said.

Statistic of the game: Lewis enhanced his reputation for instant offense. He scored his 15 points in only 17 minutes, turning the game around.

Quote of the game: Clem Haskins on defeating the Bruins, one of the legendary programs in the history of college basketball, which the Gophers had never before accomplished: "Beating UCLA. That means so much. People will see it in the paper. UCLA has a stigma, an aroma. It means a lot to people who aren't basketball fans. They see Minnesota beat UCLA, and they may say, 'Minnesota is for real.' People still don't think we're for real. I don't think a team can win 31 games and not be for real. You have to be examined not to think we're for real."

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