CHICAGO, Ill. — Underlooked, overachieving and running on fumes.
That’s how the Minnesota Golden Gophers roll in the Big Ten semi-finals Saturday against the Michigan Wolverines.
If not for a late second-half meltdown at Mackey Arena on Feb. 3, the Gophers could be boasting a three-game season sweep of the Big Ten regular season co-champion Purdue Boilermakers. Unlike their Feb. 3 loss, the Gophers withstood a Boilermakers surge Friday night in Chicago, weathered the loss of a 10-point lead and made the most plays down the stretch to escape with a 75-73 win in-front of a partisan Purdue crowd at United Center.
“Obviously, they’re a really talented team, one of the nation’s top teams by far, and that’s just a credit to them,” said senior Jordan Murphy, who scored a game-high 27 points. “We played really good tonight, we played hard, we made some really good plays, got some really key rebounds down the stretch, and I think that’s just some toughness the last five minutes of the game.”
Purdue head coach Matt Painter has watched his team lose to the Gophers twice in 10 days and said after the game he’s hoping his group doesn’t run into the Maroon and Gold in the NCAA Tournament.
For a third straight game, Minnesota put the clamps on Carsen Edwards. Despite being a 39 percent shooter from the field and 34 percent shooter from 3, he finished the year shooting 17 of 68 from the floor and 5 of 32 from 3-point range against the Gophers.
“For him it’s kind of settling into a game,” said Painter, “and sometimes when you can’t settle into a game and somebody makes it really hard on him, now he doesn’t get into that rhythm.”
Edwards hasn’t shied away from taking shots despite his struggles — he averages 19 field goal attempts per game. Purdue runs a large amount of its offense through Edwards, whether he’s controlling from the point or running full speed around triple screens to get open looks. Freshman Gabe Kalscheur was in his hip pocket throughout Minnesota’s March 5 victory at Williams Arena when Edwards shot 7 for 31, and again Friday night. On the game’s final play, Edwards attempted a difficult step-back against Kalscheur for the win but missed off the back iron.
— Sam Ekstrom (@SamEkstrom) March 16, 2019
“I would say just giving him really tough shots,” said Kalscheur of his success, “because it’s hard going off those triple screens, so just giving him the hardest task of tough shots.”
Edwards didn’t have a field goal until the game got under two minutes remaining in the first half. He committed more turnovers in the game (6) than made field goals (4).
Purdue, the only Big Ten team with over 300 made 3s on the season, shot 23 of 79 (29 percent) against the Gophers from 3-point range this season. That’s a drastic reversal for the Boilermakers — the top 3-point shooting team in the Big Ten this year. (And for Minnesota, who allowed the most 3s in conference games.)
Frankly, it’s hard to explain.
“We’ve just been weird,” head coach Richard Pitino admitted. “We haven’t gone on these huge runs of wins. We’ve kind of gone on some losing streaks and snuck back on a big win. We’ve got some unassuming guys.”
It’s those unassuming guys who anchored a second straight heart-stopping win.
Murphy’s 27 points pulled him within 26 points of the Gophers’ second all-time scoring mark, and he’s got at least two games left to break it. His relentless post attacks against 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms showed (if possible) an even deeper level of tenacity from the senior.
Amir Coffey has now played 84 minutes, 34 seconds out of a possible 85 minutes in two tournament games. He poured in 21 points with his usual array of odd-angle, sometimes-double-clutching runners. As he grabbed the game-sealing rebound — which hasn’t always been a given for the Gophers in late-game situations — he let out a scream and ran toward his bench.
“Our, quote, stars would be Amir and Murph,” said Pitino. “They don’t care [about attention]. I really don’t care. I just care that we win. They’re a very, very humble group. They’re not a beat-your-chest type of group.
“I said to them before our Penn State game, I said, ‘I’m sick and tired of turning on the TV and nobody’s giving us a shot. Everyone picks us to lose all the time. I said to Dupree [McBrayer], he was walking in, ‘Doesn’t that bother you?’ He’s like, ‘I didn’t even notice it.’ … I just think they have a quiet confidence about them, a quiet toughness about them.”
After slogging through the final half of the Big Ten season and losing Eric Curry to injury, the Gophers weren’t sure they would even make the Big Dance. Jordan Murphy said before the March 5 Purdue win that the Gophers would thrive under the added pressure rather than melt beneath it.
He’s been proven right thus far.
“I gives us a lot of confidence just knowing that our players can stay composed,” said Murphy.
“This group,” said Pitino, “doesn’t really get fazed by a whole lot.”