Even though the unusual raised floor at Williams Arena is a recipe for catastrophe during a court storming, that didn't stop Minnesota fans young and old from pouring onto the floor in jubilation Tuesday night.
They would have climbed 10 flights of stairs if that's what it took to properly celebrate a season-saving victory over the nation's top-ranked team.
A Minnesota team with far too much talent to have lost eight of its previous 11 games finally regained its early-season form during a 77-73 upset of Indiana. Fueled by a roaring sellout crowd and growing sense of urgency, the Gophers stormed back from an eight-point deficit with 14 minutes to play thanks to a strong defensive effort and a huge edge on the offensive glass.
Minnesota held a 44-30 rebounding edge on Indiana and grabbed 23 offensive rebounds, a staggering tally made possible by the Gophers outmuscling the more talented Hoosiers in the paint and outworking them for second-chance opportunities. That helped offset a 4 of 20 3-point shooting performance and enabled the Gophers to attempt 11 more shots than Indiana in the game.
Trevor Mbakwe was the primary catalyst on the glass, scoring 21 points and grabbing a game-high 12 rebounds. Playing with the fire of a senior trying to prove a point to pro scouts, Mbakwe overwhelmed potential lottery pick Cody Zeller with his strength and physicality until fouls and fatigue forced Elliott Eliason and Andre Hollins to help pick up the slack in the second half.
Having faded from the top 10 in the nation to the lower half of the Big Ten, Minnesota met with a sports psychologist before Tuesday's game and had a player's only meeting over the weekend. Who knows if any of that helped, but the Gophers are suddenly in much better position as a result of their upset win.
Minnesota's victory not only erases any doubt over whether the Gophers will make the NCAA tournament but also positions them to earn a favorable seed in spite of their midseason swoon. If Minnesota (19-9, 7-8) can take advantage of a soft finishing stretch of the schedule and defeat Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue, a No. 6 or 7 seed is not out of the realm of possibility.
How significant Tuesday's outcome will be for Indiana depends on how the Hoosiers (24-4, 12-3) respond.
What watching Indiana get outplayed on the road does more than anything is reinforce the notion that there's no dominant team this season in college basketball.
Indiana had made a case to be considered national title favorite by opening a two-game lead in the sport's strongest conference. The Hoosiers are certainly still a leading title contender despite Tuesday's loss, but the performance exposed some flaws.
Though Indiana has more talent and skill than Minnesota, the Hoosiers allowed the Gophers to beat them up physically and outwork them for second-chance opportunities. Minnesota had 23 offensive boards and a 44-30 edge on the glass as a whole, never a good sign considering the two teams shot a similar percentage from the field.
Indiana has the firepower to overcome a poor defensive game or a poor rebounding game more often than not, but the Hoosiers' frontcourt stars weren't at their best.
Zeller was invisible for long stretches, scoring only two first-half points and not sinking his first field goal until 8:40 remained in the second half. He fouled out late in the second half with just nine points on 2 of 9 shooting in 32 minutes.
Forward Christian Watford had been more consistent recently, but he was back to his erratic ways Tuesday night. He had eight points and only mustered one field goal until the final minute of the game.
As Indiana players walked dejectedly to the tunnel after the final buzzer while Minnesota fans climbed onto the floor and made a beeline to mid-court, ESPN's Samantha Ponder caught up with Gophers coach Tubby Smith. Unlike his memorable locker room dance after a win over Wisconsin earlier this month, Smith was stoic.
"Feels pretty good," he said in a monotone voice. "It's only one game."
Fair enough. But for a team in a six-week free fall prior to Tuesday, it was a pretty big one.
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