With a top-25 ranking on the line Sunday night, the Gophers men’s basketball team attracted its loudest and most enthusiastic crowd of the season at Williams Arena.
Among the announced crowd of 11,267 were former Gophers All-America and Lynx star Lindsay Whalen and new Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck, who gave a halftime speech and had the student section chanting, “Row the Boat!”
Whalen said this was one of the best U basketball teams she has seen in 10 years.
To say there’s more buzz about the Gophers than at this time last year would be an understatement.
Coach Richard Pitino’s team fought off desperate Ohio State in a 78-68 victory, giving the Gophers a share of the Big Ten lead.
In eight months, the Gophers (15-2, 3-1 Big Ten) have gone from a program-worst 8-23 season to their best start in five years, giving their fans a program to be proud of again.
“We’re not a boastful program,” Pitino said. “We just wanted our talking to be done on the court. What’s exciting is every game we’ve earned the respect back from our awesome fans.”
The Gophers never had been in first place in the conference at any point during Pitino’s tenure the past four seasons until Sunday. They are in a four-way tie with Purdue, Michigan State and Nebraska.
Longtime Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said he wasn’t shocked by the Gophers’ turnaround.
“Nothing surprises me in college basketball anymore,” he said.
Amir Coffey scored 19 points and Akeem Springs 18 for the Gophers, who have won three consecutive Big Ten games for the first time since 2014-15.
“If you read some of the stuff they said about us before the season started, it’s a positive step,” Springs said. “Sky’s the limit for us.”
The Gophers showed they have put last year behind them with consecutive road wins at Purdue and Northwestern. They have been on a mission since blowing a 15-point lead at home to lose 75-74 in overtime to Michigan State in the Big Ten opener Dec. 27.
Monday, the Gophers likely will be ranked in the polls for the first time since February 2013, and for the first time under Pitino.
“Coach tries to tell us to stay levelheaded and stay away from that,” Coffey said about rankings. “But it would mean a lot. It would show us that our hard work is paying off.”
Gophers fans might remember D’Angelo Russell’s big night and Marc Loving hitting the winning shot in the waning seconds in the Buckeyes’ 74-72 overtime victory two years ago in the teams’ last meeting in the Twin Cities.
This was a much different team for Ohio State (10-6, 0-3), which got 20 points (and seven turnovers) from Jae’Shon Tate and 15 points and 15 rebounds from Trevor Thompson. Ohio State trailed 16-3 right away after back-to-back three-pointers from Coffey and Springs.
The Barn roared when Nate Mason nailed a three-pointer to make it 31-14 with 5:27 left. Around that time, Fleck made his way around to meet and greet fans with a camera crew following.
It was all good times for the Gophers, until Ohio State went on a 13-2 run to cut it to a six-point margin. Minnesota managed to take a 38-27 lead into halftime, but the Buckeyes came out of the break with more confidence.
The Gophers looked to be in trouble when it was a two-possession game and Reggie Lynch picked up his fourth foul late in the second half. But Coffey drove the lane and hammered down a two-handed dunk in traffic to make it 62-55 with 4:50 left.
Lynch, who had 10 points, five rebounds and three blocks, eventually fouled out. Thompson followed with two free throws to cut it to 62-59 at the four-minute mark, but Ohio State did not get closer.
Springs’ fifth three brought the crowd to its feet for a 69-60 advantage. Besides Springs’ boost, the Gophers bench also had Bakary Konate record four of the team’s season-high 12 blocks. Eric Curry was questionable to play because of a bruised heel, but he provided two blocks in 12 minutes.
“Nate Mason not playing offensively his best game [12 points on 2-for-12 shooting] and Eric Curry hurt,” Pitino said. “We showed our depth.”