The Gophers attempted to explain their 90-84 double-overtime victory over Clemson on Thursday night simply as a product of their championship season. But never in their previous 29 victories had they won a game like their Midwest Regional semifinal at the Alamodome.
"I've never played in a game like that, ever," Gophers junior forward Sam Jacobson said. "Awesome, absolutely. I know I'm probably still going to be watching that about 20 or 30 times in my VCR 10 years from now."
Their unlikely comebacks at Indiana and Michigan disappear against both the setting and the circumstance of this game, which they had both won and lost several times over. They lost their point guard when Eric Harris sustained a shoulder separation with the Gophers leading by a basket with seven minutes left in regulation. They played those final minutes plus both overtimes with three of their other starters -- Jacobson, Bobby Jackson and John Thomas -- playing with four fouls each.
And still they persevered, after losing a 15-point, first-half lead, after watching the game's pulse swerve from deficit to tied score to lead eight times in the final 18 minutes.
They did so by abandoning their star-less system. This time, when they needed their 30th victory of the season in the worst way, they placed their immediate future upon Bobby Jackson and Jacobson and surfed them to Saturday's regional championship.
Jackson scored a career-high 36 points. Jacobson tied his career best with 29 points. When it finally was over -- after Clemson's Tony Christie forced the first overtime with a driving layup a moment before the second half buzzer, after the Gophers trailed by six points to start that first overtime -- there was no celebration, only a tired trudge across the stadium floor to their locker room.
"I have cramps, I have bumps, I have almost no legs," said Jackson, who played 49 of the 50 minutes. "If you're not exhausted after a game like that, something is wrong with you."
Said Jacobson: "Inside, we celebrated. Outside, we were just so tired."
Harris had his shoulder X-rayed after the game, but results were not immediately known. Gophers coach Clem Haskins said he didn't know whether Harris could play Saturday, and if he couldn't he said sophomore Charles Thomas, who spelled Harris after the injury, would start with Jackson in the backcourt.
"There's no way I'm missing the Elite Eight," Harris said.
The Gophers had threatened to turn this third-round game into a cruise just like their first two tournament games. They burst to a 35-20 lead before the game was 14 minutes old and appeared set to run the Tigers, quite literally, off the floor.
Suddenly, the tempo reversed and the officiating crew of Don Rutledge, David Libbey and Reg Greenwood might as well have sent the 29,231 fans home and decided the evening upon a contest of free throws.
The Tigers scored one field goal in the final nine minutes of the first half, and yet reduced a 15-point deficit to 41-35 at intermission by scoring 14 of their points in the closing minutes of the half at the free-throw line.
Ninety seconds into the second half, Jackson collected a technical foul for griping about the officiating -- while he was dribbling the ball -- and by the time Harris collapsed to the floor after running into a Tom Wideman pick with seven minutes left in regulation, Jackson and John Thomas already had four fouls. Jacobson joined them with four just minutes later.
Harris sat at the end of the bench with his right shoulder wrapped, his face contorted in pain.
"It was both physical and emotional," Harris said. "I was hurting. I wanted to play, I wanted to get those guys a lift. But they played great."
Even without Harris, the Gophers turned a tie score into a six-point lead and still had a four-point lead with 20 seconds left in regulation. Sophomore Quincy Lewis had the chance to put the game away with a pair of free throws, but he missed both with the Gophers leading 72-70 with 8.2 seconds left. When John Thomas couldn't find the rebound on the floor, the Tigers finished off a break with Christie scoring just before the buzzer sounded.
Greg Buckner and Merl Code opened the first overtime with consecutive three-point shots. Buckner followed with a bucket and the Gophers trailed 80-74 with three minutes left and their magical season seemed buried. So they simply scored the next six points -- the final four by Jackson -- and then opened the second overtime with an 8-1 run.
Lewis answered with an offensive rebound to start things, Jackson drained a three-pointer and by the time the Gophers led 88-81 with 23 seconds left in the game, they had scored 14 of 15 points.
"I really can't say why it slipped away," said Buckner, who led Clemson with 22 points.
Haskins and his players could. All he had to do was look at Jacobson, at Jackson, at Charles Thomas, who replaced Harris after the injury and, with Jackson moved over to point guard, played the final 17 minutes -- and 28 overall -- despite his aching back.
"That was our season right there, to the extreme," said Charles Thomas, referring to the Gophers' track record of resiliency. "They say great teams win close games. We win close games."