After knocking off the second and third seeds to reach the finals of the Big Ten tournament, Minnesota is confident facing the top team in the field. Considering what Ohio State went through to reach the title game, another difficult challenge should be expected.
The top-seeded and fifth-ranked Buckeyes look for their third tournament title while trying to end the sixth-seeded Golden Gophers’ surprising run Sunday in Indianapolis.
It hasn’t been an easy road to the title game for Ohio State (26-7), the regular-season co-champion which had won 10 of 11 heading into the tournament. After star Evan Turner sank a 37-footer at the buzzer to give the Buckeyes a 69-68 victory over eighth-seeded Michigan in Friday’s quarterfinals, they needed double overtime to beat fifth-seeded Illinois 88-81 on Saturday.
Facing the upstart Gophers (21-10) might not be any easier.
Needing a strong showing to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament, Minnesota might have done it after beating No. 3 seed and 11th-ranked Michigan State 72-67 in overtime Friday. The Gophers made a bigger statement Saturday, rolling over No. 2 seed and sixth-ranked Purdue 69-42 for their third win in as many days. This is the first time Minnesota has reached the Big Ten final.
“I feel we can compete with any team in the country and I feel we can compete with any team in the Big Ten,” said forward Ralph Sampson III, who had a team-high 13 points Saturday. “We’ve proven it in this tournament right now.”
Minnesota’s biggest test might come against the Buckeyes, who know having a national player of the year candidate like Turner means they have a chance to win no matter how poorly they play.
Turner scored 12 of his 31 points after regulation and finished with 10 rebounds while committing 10 turnovers against Illinois. After enduring a pair of extended scoring droughts, Ohio State used a 20-0 second-half run to take a nine-point lead before Illinois rallied to force overtime.
“Sometimes you just have to will your way and make things happen and that’s it,” said Turner, averaging 21.6 points in his last five Big Ten tournament games.
With the win, the Buckeyes kept alive their hopes of earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“I’d love to have it,” coach Thad Matta said. “I think that in regards to a 1 seed, we’re kind of on a roll right now. But I’ll take what they give us; I always do.”
A victory Sunday would certainly bolster Ohio State’s case. The Buckeyes and Gophers split their two meetings this season with each winning at home. Turner scored 19 points in both contests, but Minnesota is now playing at a high level at the right time.
The Gophers shot 61.5 percent in the first half and held Purdue to 5-for-27 shooting to take a 37-11 halftime lead Saturday. It was the worst first half in recorded history for the Boilermakers and a confidence-building 20 minutes for a Minnesota team that held Purdue to 27.6 percent shooting for the game.
“I thought it was a very impressive and dominating performance,” said Gophers coach Tubby Smith, who’s team has won four in a row and seven of nine. “It’s as good a half as I think I’ve been a part of as a coach.”
Second-leading scorer Blake Hoffarber (10.4 points per game) had three points Saturday for Minnesota, but the junior guard is averaging 18.7 in his last three games versus Ohio State, shooting 17 of 28 in those contests.
Minnesota is trying to become the first team since Iowa in 2001 to win four Big Ten tournament games in four days.