Gophers coach Richard Pitino searched for a way this week to turn his basketball team’s grief over Kobe Bryant’s death into growth, as players studied the NBA icon’s legacy.
The idea turned into a video Pitino’s staff showed of clips from the Los Angeles Lakers’ 1997 playoff loss to the Utah Jazz.
It mainly focused on Bryant’s four air balls that ended his rookie year on a sour note. The lesson: To be great and clutch like Kobe, you first have to deal with failure.
“That was big how he kept at it,” sophomore Gabe Kalscheur said. “It didn’t matter if he air-balled a bunch of shots. He thought the next one was going in.”
The Gophers are hoping the lessons learned from Bryant can help them bounce back after an exasperating loss on the same day the world lost a sports icon.
In preparation for Thursday’s game against No. 19 Illinois in Champaign, Pitino didn’t hide his disappointment in the way his team lacked toughness, lost confidence offensively (shooting 5-for-28 from three-point range) and showed little discipline defensively in Sunday’s 70-52 loss against Michigan State.
Bryant overcame those rookie air balls, becoming one of the sport’s best closers — someone unafraid to put a team on his back with the game on the line and take the last shot.
The Gophers (11-9, 5-5 Big Ten) have witnessed this quality from Marcus Carr, and he’ll square off with another of the Big Ten’s best closers in Ayo Dosunmu, who has helped lift No. 19 Illinois (15-5, 7-2) to six consecutive wins.
Carr, who hit a winning three-pointer in last week’s 62-59 victory at Ohio State, said Bryant was someone he “grew up watching that helped us love the game.”
And after Dosunmu sank a jumper with 0.5 seconds left in Saturday’s game at Michigan, he said the confidence to hit that shot came from watching Bryant.
“He means a lot to me just growing up being my favorite player of all time,” Dosunmu said Wednesday. “When I get into late-game situations on each shot, I don’t try to make the moment too big.”
One statistical measure of a player is how many points he scores in a game’s final minute. Dosunmu took over the Big Ten lead with 19 last weekend, followed by Carr with 17.
With the score 62-62 Saturday against Michigan, Dosunmu drove to the left elbow of the foul line. He broke free from Zavier Simpson with a pump fake and drilled the 15-footer.
“It takes a certain type of guy to want the ball in those type of situations and not fear the miss,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.
Dosunmu is averaging 19.2 points and shooting 54% from the field in the past five games.
The Gophers, meanwhile, have relied on Carr’s takeover mentality in big wins this season, which included his career-high 35 points against the Buckeyes on Dec. 15 and 21 points in the rematch last week.
Arguably the highlight of the season so far for the Gophers came in the program’s first victory in Columbus since 2005. After Carr’s floater off the glass tied it with 43 seconds left, the Gophers got another possession.
The 6-2 sophomore used a ball screen at the top of the key from Gabe Kalscheur to break free from the first defender. Carr crossed over to his right and pulled up beyond the arc. The outstretched hand of Ohio State’s C.J. Walker couldn’t stop the ball from dropping through the net.
“I kind of take pride in being a clutch player,” Carr said. “I kind of had nightmares for a long time about the way I played down the stretch [in a double-overtime loss Jan. 2 at Purdue]. That was definitely in the back of my mind that I had to make up for that.”