Minnesota felt it might have let its NCAA tournament chances slip away when it suffered a gut-wrenching loss to Purdue late last month.
With two more wins, the Golden Gophers won’t have to worry about where they’re headed.
While Purdue has a No. 1 seed on its mind heading into Saturday’s second Big Ten semifinal at Conseco Fieldhouse, Minnesota can make an emphatic case for a spot in the field of 65 by avenging a pair of losses to the sixth-ranked Boilermakers.
One of the wildest games of the Big Ten’s regular season took place Feb. 24 in Minneapolis, where Purdue (27-4) came in with a nine-game winning streak to face a Gophers team that had dropped six of 10.
It looked like Minnesota (20-12) was going to earn perhaps its most significant win of the season. The Gophers led by nine points in the second half after holding the then-No. 4 Boilermakers to a 10-minute stretch without a field goal.
But despite the loss of Robbie Hummel to a torn ACL in the first half, Purdue rallied to win 59-58 on Keaton Grant’s go-ahead jump shot with 7.7 seconds to play.
After falling to 7-8 in the conference, Minnesota’s NCAA hopes seemed in dire shape.
“We feel that we’re talented enough to play with anyone,” coach Tubby Smith said. “A play here, a play there.”
Since the loss, the Gophers have started to make a few more. Minnesota won two of three heading into the Big Ten tournament, routed Penn State by 21 in Thursday’s first round, then escaped No. 11 Michigan State 72-67 in overtime in Friday’s quarterfinals despite shooting 36.1 percent from inside the arc.
Blake Hoffarber and Devoe Joseph, though, hit seven of Minnesota’s 10 3-pointers.
“We all watch ESPN and we all see who’s on the bubble and we’ve been in that talk,” senior Lawrence Westbrook said after scoring 11 points. “For us to get in there, we have to get quality wins. Everybody collectively gave 100 percent effort to move toward our resume for the tournament.”
The Gophers have never played in a Big Ten final, but advancing to their first one would help make a great case for the selection committee. Snapping their five-game losing streak to Purdue would give Minnesota wins over each of the league’s top five teams, plus a solid non-conference victory over then-No. 12 Butler.
The Boilermakers, however, are the defending champions. Without Hummel, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player in 2009, E’Twaun Moore made an early case for those honors on Friday. The junior guard had a season-high 28 points and JaJuan Johnson added 22 in a 69-61 quarterfinal win over Northwestern.
Moore shot just 6 for 16 from the field, but made 12 of 17 free throws to help Purdue improve to 3-1 without Hummel.
“I just tried to drive the ball strong until someone stopped me,” said Moore, who’s averaged 16.8 points in his career against Minnesota. “I had to be patiently aggressive.”
The Boilermakers may need to be patient on selection Sunday, as even another Big Ten title may not be enough to get them a No. 1 seed without Hummel.
Coach Matt Painter isn’t too concerned where his team ends up.
“I’ve said a 1 to a 3, no matter what happens in the Big Ten tournament and I’ll stay with that,” Painter said. “I don’t think we’re a 1 seed if we don’t win it, but we’re somewhere in there. … If we don’t win it, we’re going to be a 2 or 3. In my opinion, that’s what we deserve.”