Better late than never.
Saturday's 81-69 victory over Nebraska was the kind of confidence boost the Gophers could have used a couple weeks ago, and the kind of opponent they probably wish they would seen more than twice this men's basketball season.
But when they got the gift, the Gophers took it, hitting 10 three-pointers to rout the cellar-dwelling Cornhuskers and end a six-game losing streak. The Gophers got 20 points from Chip Armelin and a double-digit effort from five players in all, including Ralph Sampson III on a day he was honored at Williams Arena as the team's lone healthy senior.
The victory gives the Gophers a whisper of momentum heading in the Big Ten tournament Thursday, and it enabled the embattled Sampson to walk off the court to cheers.
"I was trying not to get too excited," Sampson said of the pregame ceremony, when he was acknowledged along with injured Trevor Mbakwe -- who was given the award for "sixth man of the game" -- on Senior Day. "I didn't want to go out for the first few minutes and then have to go sit down again because I'm having an asthma attack because I'm too geeked up. ... I think the team pulled together well and we played a good game and came out with a win, so you can't ask for anything more."
Well, there might be one more thing, actually.
The Gophers' NCAA tournament hopes are finished unless they can get the Big Ten's automatic berth by winning four games in the conference tournament, which begins Thursday in Indianapolis. It might also be the last chance for Sampson to get noticed by NBA scouts and give a boost to a somewhat-lacking senior résumé.
In that way, the senior is drawing from an old experience -- his sophomore season, when the Gophers had a rough go down the stretch but won their last regular-season game and then got all the way to the Big Ten tournament championship game by winning three games in three days.
"We still have that feeling here about making that run, so we know exactly what we need to do, we know exactly how to execute it," said Sampson, who had 12 points and five rebounds Saturday.
The difference between two years ago and now? The 2009-10 Gophers finished conference play 9-9, not 6-12, and were sixth in the Big Ten instead of 10th.
As such, these Gophers (18-13) have their work cut out for them, regardless of apparent improvements Saturday, a game in which they shot better overall and 45.5 percent from three-point range, scored at least 70 points for the first time in nine games, had only three turnovers in the first half and finished with nearly twice as many assists (23) as turnovers (12).
The Gophers had a couple of players get hot against the Huskers (12-17, 4-14), most notably Armelin and Rodney Williams, who finished with 16 points and eight rebounds. It's something that's been all too rare for them recently, and it's the kind of leadership required going forward if they are going to pull off a miracle run.
"We haven't had that happen for us," coach Tubby Smith said. "And that's what we need. When the team is not playing well, we need somebody to say: 'Hey, my shots go in, I'm concentrating, I'm focused, I'm ready. Here I am, Coach -- play me.' "
They had the spark Saturday, against the worst team in the conference. Can they have it again Thursday when they face Northwestern in the opening round? They will need to if they want to keep this good feeling.
"It was definitely a lot different than the past six games," Williams said. "Getting this last one in at home, everybody's down there, they're happy, music playing. We're looking to ride this one to the Big Ten tournament."