With the clock winding down, Al Nolen seemed hesitant. He had struggled from three-point line all season.

But Blake Hoffarber -- his high school buddy, former AAU teammate and fellow Gophers co-captain -- urged him to shoot. So he did. The result was what proved to be the winning three-pointer in the Gophers' 70-67 victory over No. 8 Purdue on Thursday.

"Blake had been talking to me a little bit in the game and telling me just shoot when I'm open," Nolen said, as the Gophers prepared to face Iowa on Sunday. "He was really urging me and encouraging me to take the shot. Once I took the shot, he was like, 'See, I told you.' "

Their chemistry has helped the Gophers thrive through a tough stretch. They faced five ranked teams in their first five conference games. And junior guard Devoe Joseph abruptly left the program two weeks ago.

Without the veteran leadership on and off the court they have supplied, the Gophers might be headed in a different direction.

Hoffarber scored 26 points Thursday in the program's first home victory over a top-10 program in more than a decade. Nolen has been a floor general; in the past three games, he has averaged 12.6 points, while collecting nine steals, 18 assists and 14 rebounds, even though he's still dealing with a lingering foot injury that kept him out of five games.

"With us being seniors and this being our last year, we took it as we gotta really bring the guys together and step up and get this team rolling," Nolen said.

Their relationship commenced well before joining the Gophers. Hoffarber and Nolen first connected when they starred for the Minnesota Magic Elite AAU squad as preps. Now, they anchor a Gophers squad seeking its third consecutive NCAA tournament bid.

"It's been a lot of fun. They were high school kids and they've matured into young men now," said Hoffarber's father, Bruce.

And who would have thought? When they committed to play for the Gophers beginning in 2007, some wondered whether they could play at the Division I level.

Hoffarber, a Hopkins standout, encountered questions about his athleticism, despite numerous high major offers. But he has showcased a variety of offensive maneuvers that have made him one of the Big Ten's most versatile scorers. Nolen, from Minneapolis Henry, struggled to qualify the summer before his freshman season, and his limited offense created speculation about his ability to excel in the Big Ten.

Nolen has had to overcome academic challenges but is on track to graduate. And he's still not a pure scorer. But his defensive prowess is feared nationally. Just ask Purdue star E'Twaun Moore, whom Nolen helped limit to a 2-for-14 shooting mark Thursday.

The seniors, both three-star recruits on Rivals.com in high school, will end their careers this season as two of the most accomplished players in team history.

Hoffarber has the fourth-best career three-point field goal percentage (41.6) and has made more shots from beyond the arc than any player in program history (248). Voshon Lenard made 276 from 1992 through '95, but statistics from two of his seasons were vacated.

Nolen is officially third on the school's all-time assists list with 391. With 15 more steals this season, he will top Melvin Newbern as the career steals leader.

"When we decided to commit to the University of Minnesota, they were not doing very well and we both decided we wanted to come here and help build the program up to where it once was and get it going in the right direction," Hoffarber said.

They come from different backgrounds and have different personalities. But their bond is strong. When Nolen was deemed academically ineligible second semester last season, few took the news harder than Hoffarber.

"It's like Al knows where Blake is and Blake knows what Al can do," said Al Nolen Sr., the point guard's father. "It seems like they could be distant brothers."

Gophers coach Tubby Smith said their relationship and production has bolstered the program.

"It helps if you've known someone," he said. "Al has a very good feel for Blake, how he plays and how he wants the ball. And that's something that's been good for us and good for the team."