A frantic final two minutes that featured multiple haymakers from both sides, a blown call and final bucket with 1.3 seconds left put the Gophers into the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1997 in a 71-70 win over Louisville on Sunday evening and sending the Cardinals packing for the second year in a row.
Trailing 67-63 at the 2:01 mark, Pitino called the team’s final timeout after a 7-0 blitz from the Cardinals left the Gophers reeling and facing their steepest deficit of the night. On the ensuing possession Marcus Carr hit a step-back three to close the gap to one, while Louisville’s Jordan Nwora came back down the court and hit a pull-up 25-footer that appeared to be the dagger, giving Louisville a commanding 70-66 lead with 1:13 remaining.
Not to be deterred, Carr found a wide-open Gabe Kalscheur in the corner on the next possession whose fifth three-pointer of the night cut the lead back to one at 70-69 with less than a minute to go. Pitino chose to let his defense play it out down the stretch instead of fouling, which ended up paying off, even with a wonky ending.
With the shot clock dwindling down, Nwora found center Steven Enoch down low who went up for the layup, only to have Daniel Oturu waiting there fpr a forceful block. But it was one of those blocks where both players maintain possession, which should’ve resulted in a jump ball and keeping it with Louisville. Only no whistles were blown. Maybe each ref thought the other would blow the play dead ... it just never came. Enoch looked around slightly stunned, and both teams had a moment of “hold on a minute” while Kalscheur chased the ball down.
But it was Minnesota’s ball for the final possession. With 21 seconds left and no timeouts, Carr pushed the offense down the court, catching the Cardinals slightly flat-footed, and dumped it down low to Oturu who backed down a clearly still-stunned Enoch and hit a lay-up to put Minnesota in the driver’s seat. The final three-quarter court heave from Nwora fell short, and the Gophers were on to the next round.
It was another chapter in the exciting, peculiar late-season surge from the Gophers who have become the Cardiac Kids as they make a mad surge through the postseason.
Oturu was a maniac down low, scoring 21 points and grabbing 16 rebounds while adding 5 blocks, while Carr (13 and 12) and Kalscheur (17) had great nights as well. And, once again, Isaiah Ihnen found himself in double figures again, scoring 10 points en route to his third straight double-digit effort.
Jordan Nwora threatened to take over the game all night, scoring 27 points and showing why he is one of the top players in the nation. Enoch, while having trouble with Oturu, still scored 13 points and pulled down 12 rebounds.
But for the Gophers, it’s an emphatic exclamation point for the season and high-water mark for the program, who is in it’s first Sweet Sixteen in more than 20 years. Pitino’s seat is now ice cold as he’s navigated a postseason fraught with challenges and tough teams.
The quest only gets more difficult for Minnesota, who now faces the Dayton Flyers, losers of just two games all season. But for now, the Gophers are on to the second weekend of play.