MINNEAPOLIS -- After their fans had stormed the floor Tuesday night and they had answered the media’s questions about Minnesota’s first victory over a No. 1 team in nearly a quarter-century, the Golden Gophers continued their celebration in the locker room.
The chorus of Canadian rapper Drake’s new single, “Started from the Bottom,” pulsated in the team’s hub in the lower level of Williams Arena, where the Gophers had just defeated No. 1 Indiana in a 77-73 upset -- the program's first over a top-ranked opponent since 1989.
“Started from the bottom, now we're here. Started from the bottom, now my whole team here.”
“Here” for Minnesota is a growing sense of assurance that Tubby Smith’s program will reach this year’s NCAA tournament, despite losing eight of 11 games prior to Tuesday’s victory.
The numbers have favored Minnesota all season. The Gophers are ranked in the top 25 of the RPI, BPI and KenPom.com ratings. Per the RPI, the Gophers possess the nation’s No. 1 strength of schedule. They compete in the toughest league in America.
Indiana’s overall success has contributed to the Big Ten's national standing. The Hoosiers didn’t play like the No. 1 team in America in Minneapolis. But road losses have been an issue for every team in the country -- ranked and unranked.
Indiana is still a program that’s equipped to reach Atlanta in early April and win a national title there. After the loss, however, the Hoosiers acknowledged their vulnerability.
“We just need to go to the drawing board, definitely watch film, see what we did wrong and bounce back,” said national player of the year candidate Victor Oladipo, who finished with 16 points.
But the loss could prove to be meaningless. If Indiana, a team that has won four of its past five games, finishes strong and earns a coveted No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, Tuesday’s outcome might not matter.
Hoosiers coach Tom Crean didn’t seem overly concerned about the defeat.
“We just missed some opportunities,” he said.
The Gophers can relate.
Although they’d looked like a tournament team on paper, they’d failed to compete like a squad that deserved an at-large bid in recent outings.
Smith was so concerned with the team’s recent slide that he recently hired a sports psychologist to talk to his players.
“We all need somebody to lift us up,” Smith said.
It must have worked. The Gophers (19-9, 7-8 Big Ten) entered the game with a vigor they had lacked in recent matchups.
In the first half, they took control. But then a dominant Trevor Mbakwe went to the bench nearly 10 minutes into the game -- and Indiana launched a 10-0 run in his absence.
Oladipo hit a 3-pointer as Elliott Eliason picked up a foul off the ball with 12 minutes, 38 seconds remaining in the first half. Officials deliberated but ultimately counted the shot, and Indiana retained possession. Jordan Hulls hit a jump shot and a 3-pointer on back-to-back possessions to give Indiana a 20-16 edge. That swing shifted the momentum in the Barn.
Leading scorer Cody Zeller finish the half without a field goal, but the Hoosiers still entered the break with a 34-30 lead. Nearly five minutes into the second half, they pulled out to a 44-36 advantage. Eliason's seven consecutive points, however, tied the game at 46 with 10:51 to go. Over the next four minutes, the Gophers continued to battle and eventually regained the lead, 55-52, with 7:22 to play.
From there, Minnesota extended its lead to seven before Indiana (24-4, 12-3) cut that deficit to three on Hulls’ 3-pointer in the final seconds.
But the Gophers sealed the game with a steal on Indiana’s final inbounds pass.
Minnesota fans flooded the court, where they hugged players and each other in the biggest win in Smith’s tenure.
“It was crazy. It’s definitely a night to remember,” Joe Coleman said. “I don’t think too many college players get to experience something like that. I’ve never felt a heat wave like that before. All the people came in. It just got so hot and crazy.”
Crean’s team had failed to stretch its second-half lead when it had the chance.
And it couldn’t do anything with Mbakwe (21 points, 12 rebounds, a block and a steal). Zeller (2-for-9, 9 points, 7 rebounds), largely due to Mbakwe’s presence, played one of the worst games of his career.
“I love challenges like that. He’s a great player, and I was able to play pretty well,” Mbakwe said. “Obviously, when you see a matchup like that, you want to play your best.”
Added Crean: “That’s a grown man that’s one of the best rebounders in this country, certainly in our league. And he was the toughest guy on the court today.”
Unlike past years, the Gophers might be worry-free on Selection Sunday. But Smith said he doesn’t want his team to become overconfident.
“The emotional part of it, getting too high and too low. ... That’s what happens to you sometimes,” Smith said. “You can have a false sense of accomplishment. I was just more matter-of-fact and said, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta get busy for tomorrow. We’ve got practice tomorrow.’”
Crean could have said the same thing to his team.