CHICAGO – With the pressure of making the NCAA tournament out of the way, the Gophers made their biggest statement of the season that they might be a team to watch in March, taking down the Big Ten co-champions for the second time this month Friday.
After shooting 63 percent in the first half, the seventh-seeded Gophers held off No. 2-seeded Purdue with Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey’s 48 combined points in a 75-73 win at the United Center.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino ended his locker room speech trying to put an even bigger chip on the shoulders of his players going into Saturday’s semifinal matchup with No. 3 seed Michigan.
“We are the least talked-about team in the country,” Pitino said. “Nobody even mentions us. And that’s fine. That’s the way it should be. Keep proving it on the court.”
The Gophers (21-12) are making their second trip to the conference tournament semifinals in three years. They last made the championship game in 2010, finishing runner-up to Ohio State.
“That would be the cherry on top,” said Murphy, who had 17 of his 27 points in the second half. “To be able to have some success and show the city that we’re a team they can be proud of.”
The Big Ten’s leading scorer, Carsen Edwards, freed himself for a potential game-winning three-pointer in the corner in the waning seconds, but his shot clanked off the mark as time expired.
Edwards, who was averaging 23.4 points, was held to 11 points and 4-for-17 shooting for the Boilermakers (23-9).
Murphy, Coffey and Gabe Kalscheur combined for 31 points in the first half to lead the Gophers to a 42-39 halftime lead. They shot 17-for-27 from the field, including 5-for-9 from three-point range.
Minnesota’s offensive performance was a far cry from when it trailed at halftime in Thursday’s 77-72 overtime win over Penn State in the second round.
There were questions about how close the Gophers were to having their bubble burst entering postseason play after seven losses in 10 games. They squashed any doubt about securing an NCAA tourney at-large bid with back-to-back Quadrant 1 victories in consecutive days in Chicago. That improves their Quad 1 record to 5-9 this season, with another opportunity Saturday.
CBSSports’ Jerry Palm told the Star Tribune the Gophers could be as high as a No. 8 seed with their second win against Purdue, which is No. 12 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi actually had Minnesota back on the bubble as one of his “Last Four Byes” before Friday’s game.
“I’m down on the Lunardi right now,” Pitino joked. “I did look at it on the bus over, and I got nervous again.”
What the Gophers proved Friday was they not only belong in the Big Dance, but they’re talented enough to win an NCAA tourney game for the first time since 2013.
In the second half, Minnesota twice led the Boilermakers by 10 points, including 57-47 after Daniel Oturu muscled in a basket at the 12-minute mark. Purdue responded with a 15-4 run to regain the lead after Edwards finished off a slashing drive, making it 62-61.
Pitino looked to his veterans to answer down the stretch. After Trevion Williams scored on a second consecutive putback, Murphy powered through 7-foot-3 Purdue center Matt Haarms for a basket plus the foul. The All-Big Ten senior forward’s three-point play gave his team a 72-71 advantage, and the lead for good.
After snatching his own miss and getting fouled with under two minutes to play, the Big Ten’s leading rebounder drilled both free throws for a three-point lead.
Minnesota had a chance to put the game out of reach when Murphy found Kalscheur in the corner for a three with 28 seconds left, but the freshman’s basket was waved off because of a shot-clock violation.
A few times this season, the Gophers let big games slip away late, including on a buzzer-beater at Michigan.
Had they won that game in Ann Arbor in late January maybe the Gophers would’ve garnered more national attention a bit sooner. But Pitino is just fine with his team flying under the radar on an unexpected tournament run.
“We got to go to the Final Four for people to talk about us?” Pitino said, chuckling. “I just care that we win. They’re a very humble group. They’re not a beat-your-chest type of group.”