The Gophers had a chance to upset the #3 ranked Purdue Boilermakers. Devoe Joseph dribbled to the corner with the last seconds tipping away. He pump faked to shake a Purdue defender and had a wide open look to win the game. The shot didn't fall and the Gophers let slip away a game that was handed to them by the basketball Gods.
Everything was going Minnesota's way. Purdue's Robbie Hummel, a great player, left the game late in the first half with what looked like a serious knee injury. He didn't return. Early in the second half, Purdue's Kelsey Barlow rolled his ankle and didn't return for any meaningful action. After Hummel's departure, the Gophers were the better team. They closed a 14 point first half deficit to 7 by the end of the half once Hummel left. The Gophers came out in the second half on fire and quickly turned that deficit into a 9 point lead. Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson played great during this stretch. And Minnesota's 3-2 defense forced the Boilermakers to make outside shots, something that without Hummel proved difficult.
But as the second half wore on, Minnesota's momentum slowed. Purdue made quite a few clutch shots, including the game-winner from Keaton Grant who was very big down the stretch. The Gophers also went away from the 3-2 zone during a large stretch in the second half and went away from its inside game that allowed the Gophers to storm back. Neither change in game plan made sense from my perspective.
While the second half come back from Minnesota was fun to watch, and the loss in the final seconds was devastating to us fans, and to Minnesota's NCAA Tournament chances, we should be honest with ourselves that this Minnesota team is not in the same league as Purdue when Hummel is on the floor. Without Hummel, the Gophers might just be a better team. But this game wouldn't have been this close had Hummel played a full 40 minutes.
The final minutes against Purdue demonstrated again that this Minnesota team doesn't know how to close games. Iverson had the chance to make an easy layup or dunk in the final minute to give Minnesota a 3 point lead. Excited, he rushed the layup and bricked it. Purdue sprinted down the floor and took the lead instead. Next year or the year after, Iverson will make that shot. He'll probably dunk it with authority. But right now, with mostly underclassmen contributing, this Gophers team hasn't yet figured out how to win close games. It's these plays, the easy plays, that you can't waste. The Gophers did throw away this opportunity.
On the positive side, Sampson was tremendous. He was confident. He's scoring with his back-to-the-basket and shooting outside with confidence. He finished with 21 and 7. With him playing so well, my only gripe is that Tubby Smith didn't give him the ball in the final 2 minutes. He was scoring almost at will down the and at the very least getting good looks, even against Purdue's JaJuan Johnson. Purdue's Johnson was very impressive himself, but Sampson was the better player Wednesday night and deserved an opportunity to put this team on his back to finish the game off.
Continuing with the big guys, I thought Iverson played well despite the miss at the end. He did well on the post and demonstrated an ability to pass out of the post to set up outside shots or easy looks on the inside once the Purdue defense collapsed. He finished with 4 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists. I thought he was solid and again liked the Gophers best when they played big with Iverson, Sampson and Damian Johnson on the floor. That size advantage allowed the Gophers to play even with Purdue on the glass.
At point guard, Devoe Joseph played a solid game. He took his offense when it was there and protected the ball, committing only one turnover. He shouldn't hold his head down for missing that shot at the end. Blake Hoffarber was a non-factor against Purdue again. Lawrence Westbrook rarely looked for his offense, finishing just with 4 points. Paul Carter played just 5 minutes, a decision I don't understand at all except for the fact he plays the same position as Damian Johnson and Tubby clearly wanted the senior on the floor. However, I think the Gophers would benefit from having Johnson and Carter on the floor together at times.
After the game last night, I let out a long sigh. I sort of expected this outcome as the second half continued. I guess that comes from being a lifelong fan of Minnesota sports. Fatalism has set in, that's for sure. But 10 hours or so later, I've come to the comforting opinion that this Minnesota team had a real chance to beat a top 5 team last night, even if Purdue was significantly undermanned. And I'm trying to think real hard about the next two years with Sampson owning the paint. There are positives, friends, but damn that one hurt last night.