MADISON, Wisc. — The way the Minnesota Golden Gophers shellshocked the Wisconsin Badgers by building a 15-point halftime lead in Wisconsin’s home gym was impressive.
Perhaps more impressive was the way they refused to flounder as the Badgers made their unsurprising second-half run.
Less than two months after the Golden Gophers football team stunned the Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium to claim Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the basketball squad upset the No. 22 team in the country 59-52 in a physical, old-fashioned Big Ten brawl at Kohl Center.
“I try to stay even-keeled. It’s a great win,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “It’s another really, really quality win for us. I’m happy for our guys. It’s important for us to be able to compete in these games in the Big Ten and find a way to get some road wins.”
The Gophers had lost badly at Boston College and Ohio State in their previous two road games, but they showed a far greater level of fortitude to stave off Wisconsin’s attack in the second half. The Badgers trimmed the Gophers’ 15-point lead to five within the first 4:30 of the second half, but two successive 3s by grad transfer Brock Stull helped push the lead back to 12.
The Badgers closed once more to pull within two at 49-47 with under two minutes remaining. But Minnesota scored the next six points on an off-balance Amir Coffey jumper and two steals and layups by Dupree McBrayer.
“At halftime, Coach came in and said, ‘You know they’re going to make their run, so just stay solid,'” Coffey said. “They made their run, and we kept battling with them. I think the last two or three possessions we got some key steals.”
Minnesota held the Badgers to their second-lowest field goal percentage of the season (41.8 percent) and a season-worst 41 percent from the free-throw line. The Gophers played physically throughout, bottling up All-American Ethan Happ and forcing him to the free-throw line, where he went a jawdropping 1 of 7, missing multiple front ends of 1-and-1s in the second half. It was Happ who dominated the Gophers in an overtime win at Williams Arena two season ago.
During several moments in the second half, as the Kohl Center sensed a Badgers comeback, Pitino called timeout and offered some assuring remarks to his team, which hadn’t won in the building in a decade.
“Just calm down, understand what they were trying to do defensively,” Pitino recalled telling his players. “They were trying to shoot some of the passing lanes, they were blitzing out on ball screens, and I thought we calmed down a little bit more. We had to improve our spacing towards the end.”
The Gophers came up with just enough baskets to win late after Coffey staked them to a 15-point lead, scoring the final 15 Gophers points in the first half and dishing three assists in the process.
“I told him, ‘Keep doing whatever he was doing,'” said McBrayer. “I don’t know what he ate, what he did, but do it again.”
Like McBrayer, Pitino has been urging Coffey to be more assertive, insisting that he deserves to be in the discussion as one of the Big Ten’s premier players. Thursday he demonstrated a killer instinct that can make the Gophers a bona fide contender.
His defensive effort was just as sound, as the Gophers doubled Happ on the low block for most of the game, forcing their wings to close out hard on 3-point shooters. Wisconsin finished 5 of 22 from beyond the arc — one of Minnesota’s strongest efforts on the perimeter in quite some time. They entered play 253rd nationally in defending the 3-point line, a year after finishing 311th.
The start-to-finish effort was off the charts, considering the Badgers have built their reputation on winning so-called ugly games at home. The Gophers just out-Badgered them.
Wisconsin had a 9 minute, 3 second drought in the first half where Minnesota took the lead they would never give up. They also forced the Badgers — third in the nation in ball security — to cough up 11 turnovers, one away from their season high.
“We’ve got a really good win, so we can’t settle,” said McBrayer, who created two of those turnovers in the final 90 seconds. “We want to be really good, we want to win the Big Ten, make it to the NCAA Tournament, and that’s the goal.”
The Gophers maintained composure like a veteran team when things didn’t go their way in the second half. Minnesota got into foul trouble as the Badgers became more aggressive attacking the basket. Daniel Oturu played most of his second-half minutes with four fouls, and Jordan Murphy fouled out on a touch foul under the basket, but the Gophers barely blinked.
While fans watching from home might’ve been replaying Gophers-Badgers games of old in their heads — like last year’s where Minnesota scored just one point in the final 5:58 of regulation — the road squad did the only thing it could to win in the Big Ten on the road: Survive.
“That’s what this league is all about,” said Pitino. “You have to be able to finish through contact. You have to be able to rebound the ball through contact, and obviously plus-12 on the glass was great. Still got to cut down on those turnovers. But we played a really, really tough schedule, and anytime you can get a road win in this conference is huge versus a really good team.”