Blake Hoffarber's sweet left-handed stroke had venerable Williams Arena rocking Thursday night as the #25 Gophers upended #8 Purdue 70-67. Hoffarber's 26 points helped Minnesota to what was arguably a must-win after early conference losses at Michigan State, at Ohio State and at Wisconsin. For this team, after dealing with the transfer of Devoe Joseph and an off-the-court distraction involving Trevor Mbakwe, this win must have felt great.
The game was easily the most entertaining game the Gophers have played all season. An up and down affair in the first half, the Gophers went into the half-time locker room up 41-40. Both teams were running and hitting their shots. It was frankly just very fun to watch, and I'd say that regardless of who had won the game.
Purdue was led by JaJuan Johnson who was simply fantastic. Johnson started quickly, hitting from the outside, knocking down fadeaways that just aren't defendable. But as the game wore on in the second half, the Gophers took Johnson out of the game as best they could. They doubled him in the post constantly, and Purdue didn't hit enough outside shots to take advantage.
The game was in doubt until the final seconds. Al Nolen hit a late three to put the Gophers up three points and Purdue missed two threes in the final seconds that could have send the game into overtime.
Significant kudos to Nolen for playing 39 minutes, scoring 13 points and adding 8 assists, 3 steals and 3 rebounds. Hoffarber's 26 points came on 10-15 shooting (4-6 from three). He added 4 assists. Combined, Hoffarber and Nolen had 12 assists to 4 turnovers. Pretty good.
Hoffarber was certainly the star on this night for Minnesota, but a considerable honorable mention goes to the Williams Arena crowd and home-court advantage. If you're going to compete in the Big Ten at the top of the conference, you must beat very good teams at home. The Gophers haven't done this in recent years. They've lost close home games to the team's best teams. Tonight, with the support of what sounded like an extremely lively home crowd, the Gophers got the job done.
Lots of observations below the jump, but first, man this feels good. It's been tough to slog through with this team in the past few weeks. There's been inconsistent defense. Off-court headaches. Disappointing losses. But the win breathes new life into the Gophers as they now have their most difficult portion of the schedule behind them.
- Just a few days after complaining about Tubby's rotations and calling for him to shorten his bench, he did just that. Nolen played every minute he could. He looked a bit winded during a couple possessions, but it was great to see him play 39 minutes. Maverick Ahanmisi played just 1 minute in the first half. Hoffarber played 35 minutes. The two other freshman, Chip Armelin and Austin Hollins, played 11 and 4 minutes respectively. The Gophers needed their two top guards on the floor for every one of those minutes.
- Of the three freshman, tonight it was Chip Armelin who earned a bit more playing time. Four points, 3 rebounds and an assist and steal in 11 minutes. Not bad. I also liked his composure in the second half when he was storming up the court with the ball, seemingly inclined to attack the basket. Instead, Armelin pulled the ball out. It was the right call and a heady play for the freshman.
- Colton Iverson started and continued playing better than Ralph Sampson III and Sampson continues to get more minutes. Iverson was 3-3 from the field. Sampson was 3-7. Both had 2 rebounds. But Sampson saw 31 minutes to Iverson's 18. I just don't get it at this point. I suppose Tubby likes Sampson's ability to hit an outside shot.
- No double-double on this night for Trevor Mbakwe. He sat the first 4 minutes until the fans started chanting for him to enter the game. He finished with 7 and 10. The Gophers really didn't look for him offensively. I'd like to see Tubby dump him the ball in the post more often.
- E'Twaun Moore? Not so much. 2-14 from the floor and 1-7 from three. The guards did a fantastic job not letting Moore get off.
- While there's a fine line between pushing tempo and playing too fast, the Gophers are clearly better when they're running. They've never been a great half-court team under Tubby and this team's athletes allow them to attack the rim in transition. Rodney WIlliams excels at that pace. So do Nolen and Mbakwe. The Gophers typically play at a faster pace than most Big Ten teams, but I'd like to see them push it more often.
- Even when they weren't running in transition, and as Dan Dakich noted at half-time, the Gophers were driving. When they do that, they're so much better than when they are playing on the perimter. Rodney Williams took advantage of the baseline. Hoffarber put the ball on the floor. And Nolen took the ball to the basket.
- I think Dakich is great by the way. One of the best Big Ten analysts I've seen.
- This site has had quite a few debates about Rodney Williams. Is he an NBA talent or not? I sure don't think he's ready yet, but I keep seeing glimpses of him blossoming. He's getting better every game with handling the basketball. He is understanding that his game is to get to the rim, and he's using the baseline very well. If he played 4 years at Minnesota, I think he could be dominant in the Big Ten by his senior year. Defensively he's getting better too. His blocked shot in the final minute, where he helped on defense the way I'm sure Tubby teaches, was a game-changer and an absolutely great defensive play.
- Next up? Iowa comes to Williams Arena Sunday at 6 p.m.