NEW YORK – It started as a statement to show Gophers basketball had definitely arrived as one of the nation’s elite teams. It ended as one of the most bizarre games perhaps in NCAA history.
After a skirmish between Minnesota and Alabama before the midway point of the second half, the Crimson Tide’s entire bench — seven players — was ejected from the game for leaving the sideline.
That left Alabama coach Avery Johnson with only five players, but it got even worse. A player fouled out. Another left because of an injury. It was 5-on-3. Yes, you heard that right: three players on the court, for more than 10 minutes.
And the Crimson Tide still made it a game.
The No. 14 Gophers saw a 17-point second-half lead cut to three with less than two minutes remaining, but they managed to pull out an 89-84 victory Saturday over No. 25 Alabama in the premier matchup of the Barclays Center Classic, a game that will be remembered for years to come for its strange final 10-plus minutes.
“I didn’t even do that in AAU,” said Gophers junior Jordan Murphy, who watched the last 3 minutes, 48 seconds from the bench after fouling out. “It’s like taking me back to elementary school days, honestly. It’s probably one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever been part of, college basketballwise. I don’t even know if we’re going to watch much film on it.”
Said Johnson: “It was all about a numbers game. Hats off to our guys who finished the game.”
Tide freshman star Collin Sexton sliced his way for a layup with 1:48 left to cut his team’s deficit to 83-80. That gave him 38 of his 40 points, edging out the heated matchup with Nate Mason that started it all.
Mason led the Gophers (7-0) with 20 points, but the All-Big Ten guard didn’t play the final 13:39 after being ejected. Murphy had all 19 of his points in the first half, to go with 14 rebounds and three blocks.
Mason nailed a three-pointer with Sexton falling to the floor for his final basket at the 14:06 mark. Mason and Sexton faced off, and both were charged with technical fouls for chirping at each other. Mason wouldn’t stop talking as he walked toward midcourt — and was given his second technical and tossed from the game. Gophers coach Richard Pitino, who again had his Hall of Fame father, Rick, in the crowd, was T’d up as well.
That’s when everything went crazy for the Gophers, who went from a 54-37 lead on a Dupree McBrayer three-pointer at 16:36 to just 57-50 after Riley Norris’ three four minutes later.
After the Norris basket, McBrayer and Alabama’s Dazon Ingram got tangled up and started a shoving match in front of the Alabama bench. The Tide bench cleared, and officials had to separate both teams. But the seven Alabama bench players were all thrown out of the game for leaving their seats.
Officials Rick Crawford, Brian McConnell and Bret Smith declined to comment to reporters, but they gave a statement to NCAA.com: “By rule, whenever a potential situation occurs on the court, no player may leave the bench area. If they do leave the bench area and don’t participate in the altercation that’s going on, then they are ejected from this contest and there’s no further penalty, which is what happened. They all came onto the court.”
The statement added that officials didn’t see any replays showing Gophers leave the bench to come on to the floor.
“We played 27 minutes of great basketball,” Pitino said, “then obviously insanity ensued. But I was proud of our guys. The guys on the bench kept their composure. Proud of my assistant coaches for doing their job and making sure they stayed off the court. It was difficult.”
Alabama (5-1) was left with its five players who were on the floor at the time of the skirmish. But Johnson then lost another one when Ingram fouled out holding Reggie Lynch on a rebound at 11:37. Lynch’s two free throws made it 63-52.
The Gophers seemed to have an unfair advantage when John Petty suffered a right ankle injury coming down on Davonte Fitzgerald’s foot after a three-point attempt with 10:41 to go. Petty had to be helped to the locker room, leaving Alabama with just Sexton, Norris and Galin Smith. But that ignited Sexton.
Amir Coffey, who had 12 points, scored on a layup for a 74-60 lead at 7:52. Sexton scored 23 points after Mason’s ejection, including three three-pointers in the last six minutes. Pitino was hollering at his players to defend him. After all, they had the numbers, but it almost didn’t matter.
“We don’t practice a lot of 5-on-3 offense. So that one’s on me,” Pitino said. “Collin Sexton had an out-of-body experience. I understand the story line is what it will be, but I’m going to watch the game those 27 minutes and say we got better today.”