AUSTIN, TEXAS – As media members entered the Gophers locker room Sunday night, the sullen faces that had appeared at postgame news conferences had, for the most part, disappeared. Players pried open meal boxes and bags of chips. Several Gophers laughed and joked as they packed their gym bags.
There weren’t any tears in sight.
Perhaps, after everything — the highs, the lows and everything in between — there weren’t any emotions left. Was it possible that after a 78-64 loss to third-seeded Florida in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s round of 32, after the immediate disappointment that ensued, that there was also something of a sense of relief after such a wearying journey?
“We have been through a whole lot of ups and downs,” said forward Rodney Williams, who had just completed his last game in maroon and gold along with Trevor Mbakwe and two other seniors. “Our team stayed together. ... Every time we got down, we never gave up, we always fought, so even thought it didn’t end the way we wanted it to, I’m still really happy and proud to be a part of this.”
As the 11th-seeded Gophers (21-13) filed off the court about a half-hour earlier, coach Tubby Smith solemnly shook hands with Florida skipper Billy Donovan and his assistants. In his postgame news conference, he spoke evenly and without much frustration or hostility other than responding to a question about whether he felt his job was in jeopardy with an abrupt “No.”
As he has all season, Smith seemed more confused than anything by the Gophers’ split personality on the court and any rumors of his future off it.
“I don’t know what it is,” he said of the Gophers’ penchant for first-half struggles and dramatic second-half rallies. “Maybe we’re just a slow-starting team.”
The Gators sank five three-pointers in the first half and shot 65.2 percent from the field after making 10 of their first 13 attempts. In the second half, Andre Hollins’ strong play — he finished with a team-high 25 points one game after putting up 28 against UCLA — and Mbakwe’s aggressiveness pulled the Gophers close.
But Hollins picked up his fourth foul with 9:21 remaining and the Gophers trailing 59-50. Minnesota scored only four points in the next six minutes, with Hollins on the bench for much of it, as the Gators (28-7) regrouped and shut down the hopeful Gophers, barring them from their first official Sweet 16 appearance since 1990.
“We respected them, but obviously not enough,” Williams said. “We weren’t communicating on defense early, we were leaving guys wide open for threes. So whenever you’re wide open and you’re a good shooter, nine times out of 10, it’s going to go in.”
When Smith’s sixth season became full of such quotes, from both players and coaches, it only added fuel to the notion that athletic director Norwood Teague will take a hard look at the coach’s future going forward, even immediately after authoring Minnesota’s first NCAA victory in his tenure at the school.
Andre Hollins can’t think of that possibility now. One long, grueling battle is over. For the sophomore point guard, there are many ahead.
“I guess I’m not caught up into it,” Hollins said regarding Smith’s future. “I predict that Coach Smith will be back. I think so.”