Last night’s double-overtime loss to Illinois can be boiled down to two things:
- If the Gophers continue what they’ve done so far, they can hang in the Big Ten. They might even be an NCAA tournament team.
- If the Gophers are a tournament-caliber team, last night’s loss will haunt them.
My first reaction to last night’s performance was a positive -- “Wow, this team is playing right with Illinois – a top 25 team until a week ago.” But the afterthought is more complicated. If they are for real, how damaging will this missed chance ultimately be in the long run?
“It was a real bad missed opportunity,” coach Tubby Smith said. “Very, very bad. It’s hard to win in the Big Ten on the road. It’s been hard for us to win anywhere in the Big Ten over the last 12-13 games. We’ve just got to find a way to win another Big Ten game.”
It’s an interesting phenomenon. Two days ago, if you had told a swarm of Gopher fans that the team would go on the road and take Illinois to double overtime, there might have been celebrations in Minneapolis. But mid-game, when the reality sets in that they were, indeed, hanging with the Illini, the expectations changed.
The game in Illinois was Minnesota’s for the taking. The Gophers were up by two points with 15 seconds left and had Julian Welch, who made 25 consecutive free throws at one point this season, on the line with a chance to extend the lead to four points. But he missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving Illinois the life it needed to reach overtime. In the first extra session, the Gophers rallied but again couldn’t convert when it mattered most as Welch missed from close-range. An early turnover in the second overtime by Ralph Sampson – who otherwise played well with a game-high 22 points – sent Illinois on its way to the victory.
The Gophers have proven they have the makings of a good team – now they need to act like it. With visions of a tournament bid materializing, “playing close” is not what matters. Winning, converting, stealing the road victory – that is what matters.
The journey doesn’t get any easier for the Gophers, who are facing Michigan on the road on New Year’s Day. What a different situation it would have been, for the Gophers to stride into Crisler Arena a 1-0 team in conference play. As it is, they will still be fighting for that first win, fighting to prove they have the stuff to not just hang, but to conquer.
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