Following disappointing losses to Iowa and Ohio State, the Gophers could easily have come out flat against the talented Hoosier team. Instead, Minnesota showed up to play early on as 14,000 fans cheered on the Maroon and Gold.
“Everybody counted us out,” said Rodney Williams. “We just had a two-game losing streak. We lost pretty bad to two teams that we could have beat.”
After Victor Oladipo nailed a jumper to open the game, the Gophers rattled off eight straight points, including six from Trevor Mbakwe who ignited the crowd with a huge dunk and physical play in the opening minutes.
“We were able to feed off Trevor’s play early,” said Williams.
With Minnesota leading 8-2 just three minutes into the game, the Hoosiers showed why they are the top team in the country. Indiana began an impressive stretch, led by Jordan Hulls who hit his first four field goals, including three from behind the arc, to give Indiana a 20-16 edge.
Despite the hot shooting start for the visitors, the Gophers used physical play to outmuscle the talented big men of Indiana. Mbakwe and Williams had huge blocks on star center Cody Zeller as Minnesota played tough defense and worked hard on the glass.
“He’s a high energy, high level guy that plays this game at a desperate level,” said Indiana coach Tom Crean of Mbakwe who tallied 12 points and six rebounds in the first half.
Although Indiana continued to score, the Gophers hung around, heading into the locker room trailing by just four.
The second half started similar to the first, with big buckets by Mbakwe, as the Gophers tied the score 34-34.
The Gophers were able to hang around in the second, thanks in large part to Minnesota’s ability to shutdown Zeller and fellow forward Christian Watford. Zeller totaled just nine points and seven rebounds before fouling out late in the game.
“We doubled (Zeller) at times,” said Smith. “The aggressive play by us, especially our frontcourt by Elliott (Elliason), Trevor, and by Mo Walker. We wanted to throw a lot of people at him.”
The Gophers were spurred offensively in the second half by their bench, which scored 16 points on the night. During one stretch, Eliason assisted on a Maverick Ahanmisi three-pointer then rattled off seven straight points for Minnesota.
“Trevor got into some foul trouble and I knew I had to be more aggressive because we were down by eight points,” said Eliason. “I wanted to attack more and do what I needed to do."
With the score tied late in the second half, Minnesota was able to keep control of the ball on offense while forcing key turnovers on defense to climb to a seven-point lead with under two minutes to play.
“We’ve been saying all this time, we need to limit our mistakes,” said Andre Hollins who scored 16 points on the night including clutch buckets down the stretch. “We turned the ball over 24 times one time and we got blown out. It just shows how good we can be when we concentrate, buckle down defensively, and take care of the ball.”
Despite a late push by the Hoosiers, Minnesota was able to hit their free throws and make stops, leading to a 77-73 victory over No. 1 Indiana, the Gophers’ first win against a top-ranked team since 1989 when the Maroon and Gold knocked of Illinois.
“Any time you get the No. 1 team in your house, you want to play your best and get the W,” said Williams. “We were able to feed off of Trevor’s play early. Andre came on late. Elliott came in and gave us some huge minutes. Everybody, from the bench to the crowd to the coaching staff, everybody was locked in and on the same page. That’s what you need when you’ve got the No. 1 team coming into your house.”
The jubilant Minnesota fans were ready to celebrate with their team as they stormed the court when the final seconds ticked off the clock.
“I knew [the students] were going to be coming,” said Eliason. “It's an unbelievable feeling to rush the court, so I just had to take it all in and experience it."
In the end, Trevor Mbakwe and the Gophers were too physical for the talented Hoosiers squad as Minnesota outrebounded the visitors 38-25 on the game.
“There is nothing more glaring than the rebounds,” said Crean. “That was our biggest issue, the fact that we had six offensive rebounds at half and got four in the second half. (Minnesota) got nine (offensive rebounds) in the first half and 14 in the second half. (Rebounding) was the difference.”
Mbakwe, who had a game-high 21 points and 12 rebounds, was a dominant presence from start to finish for the Gophers.
“He was just a beast out there,” said Austin Hollins. “On the boards, he was unstoppable. In the paint, he was scoring, he was playing defense, and he was doing what it took to win the game. I think he put us on our back and carried the team.”
The sixth-year senior was tough, physical, and energetic, outplaying a potential NBA lottery pick in Zeller.
“He was a man in there today,” said Andre Hollins of Mbakwe. “We had to keep feeding him the ball. He played Cody Zeller. He was better than Cody Zeller today.”
With the impressive win over the top team in the nation, Minnesota will look to build on the victory for a potential run in March.
“This was just a good win for our program and a good win for us,” said Smith. “It gives us some confidence, something to feel good about ourselves.”