Game Notes: Purdue at Minnesota
Purdue wins, but Hummel leaves on crutches.
Tonight presents a fantastic (and perhaps final) opportunity for the Golden Gophers to turn their season from bubble-burst into Bubblicious. For a campaign that began with a No. 25 national ranking — and an eventual climb to 22nd in late November — Minnesota’s hoop hopes for ‘09-10 have been oft-defined with cement lament since the onset of the Big Ten schedule. The respective losses of Royce White, Trevor Mbakwe and Al Nolen due to off-court issues have continually threatened to turn the Gophers from an All-Star ensemble into something more closely resembling a Fall-Star cast. It’s true that now-departed freshman White and transfer Mbakwe never saw the court for Minnesota, so their contributions can only be charted upon a hypothetical stat sheet. Yet Nolen was the Gopher assist leader and among the top perimeter defenders in the nation. After his switch from starting point guard to neck-tied observer because of academic issues, Minnesota lost four of their next six from late-January to mid-February and it appeared the Gopher hole was dug with the terra firma of N.I.T. soil.
But suddenly, Minnesota has found a little meat left on the bone.
Behind the senior leadership of Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson, the deft three point hand of Blake Hoffarber, and the steady growth of sophomores Devoe Joseph and Ralph Sampson III — Tubby Smith and Co. have won back-to-back games for the first time since the close of December and onset of the New Year. Prior to last Saturday’s 81-58 of Indiana, the Gophers scored a major home upset over then No. 14 Wisconsin with a 68-52 drubbing at Williams Arena.
This evening’s task against Big Ten-leading and No. 3 Purdue (22-3, 11-3 Big Ten) will likely prove a tougher task for Minnesota (16-10, 7-7) in their effort to return to the NCAA’s for a second-consecutive season. The Boilermakers are among the nation’s hottest teams, as evidenced by their lofty rank and nine game winning streak. Minnesota’s last win over Purdue came way back in January of 2007; the Gophers haven’t taken down a nationally-ranked top-5 squad since they felled Bob Knight’s Indiana bunch in February of 1992. In their prior game this season (January 5), the Boilermakers felled the Gopher in West Lafayette, 79-60.
Purdue arrives with three of the Big Ten’s top-11 scorers in the respective forms of E’Twaun Moore (17.2 ppg.), Robbie Hummel (15.8) and JaJuan Johnson (14.8). E’Twaun has proven especially E’Twalented in his career against Minnesota — in three lifetime games the junior guard has scored a combined 56 points. In addition, Moore has gone for double-digits in every game this year since the Boilermakers first contest of the season, in which he went for 9 points in just 18 minutes of play.
For the Gophers to find March Madness in lieu of March Sadness, Moore will need to be limited tonight by some tougher Gopher zone defense. Of equal importance will be the handle of Joseph at the point — bulky-bicep’d Purdue guard Chris Kramer is a tough defender and after leading the Conference in steals last year (2.1) he’s a sound 7th this season at 1.7 per contest.
Despite the unquestioned desperation for that NCAA, the Gophers were outplayed early, needing nearly four minutes to record their first field goal and falling behind 12-4 in the game’s opening five and-a-half minutes. The Gophers looked shaky (at best) off the dribble as Purdue pressured the ball with aplomb. Nearly seven minutes in, the Gophers made a slew of changes (as has become a Tubby Trait), subbing 4/5th of their lineup sans Ralph Sampson III — but the substitutions did little as the Boilermakers opened up a 21-10 lead 11 minutes into the half. Sophomore Lewis Jackson, who missed the first 19 games of the season with a foot injury, isn’t a guy you hear as much about as Moore, Hummel and Johnson — but the 5-9’ dude is a tough customer, and gave Gopher ball-handlers constant drama.
With 7:11 left in the half and the Boilers leading 26-14, things looked gritty for Purdue (for the first time) as Hummel needed help off the floor with a right knee injury. He was leading all scorers at the time with 11 points, including hitting 3-4 from beyond the arc.
The loss seemed to funkify Purdue as they would go on to score only 4 more points for the rest of the half. The Gophers, namely via 8-11 free throw shooting, managed to scrap together 9 points from the time Hummel went down to trail 30-23 at the half. The Boilermakers attempted just two free throws, with JaJuan Johnson missing both.
Really ugly shooting beginning for Minnesota, as seen in their 29 percent field goal shooting. Leading scorer Westbrook (13.4 per) had nary a bucket, going 0-for-3 from the field. Scoring only 2 points for the Gophers was Blake Hoffarber, the Big Ten leader in 3-point percentage (49 percent). “Leading” didn’t seem to mean much on the Purdue side, either, as E’Twaun Moore dropped just five points on 2-8 shooting.
Gritty Big Ten battle, as per usual, with the Gophers getting out-rebounded 20-10. Westbrook or Devoe Joseph (0 points, 0 assists) need to get mean on the perimeter whether it be off the dribble over via a couple of threes to get Minnesota some rhythm. If the Gophers are to score an upset, 29 percent ain’t gonna do it in the second half.
No word on Hummel at Halftime.
And no Hummel to start the second half (sounds like it could be an ACL) which would prove a major blow to the Boilers as the guy is their leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. His presence was missed by Purdue as Joseph got the scoring going for Minnesota with a 3-ball from the left arc. Moments later, Damian Johnson hit another triple from the top to put the Gophers within a point and get The Barn really burning for the first time all night. When Ralph Sampson III made one of his adorably-maturing touch shots in the paint less than three minutes into the half, Minnesota grabbed their first lead of the night at 31-30.
Two more Sampson buckets — one via a fine pass from fellow big Colton Iverson and another from the elbow — put the Gophers up 35-30 with 15:39 to play and brought Sampson to 17 points as The Barn reached feverish proportions. The mark tied the sophomore center’s career-high, achieved last month versus Indiana.
With just under 10 to go and play tightening, Hoffarber hit his first three of the night to get the crowd cooking again. Less than a minute later, Joseph found Johnson in the lane with a creative pass; Johnson’s dunk, ensuing foul and old fashioned three put the Gophers up by nine. At the 8:19 mark, Joseph tailed another assist as Sampson scored off-balance in the lane white getting fouling, running his scoring total up to 20 and 21 with the bucket and a free throw.
With just under 4 to play and Purdue grinding back, JaJuan Johnson hit a pretty turnaround to cut the Gopher lead to one, at 49-48. Tubby Smith called a timeout to settle his charges and the Gophers responded with a pair of Joseph free throws to get up 51-48. Seconds later, Johnson put Purdue back within one with a silky 18-footer, to which Joseph answered in the donnybrook with a fall-away bucket from the baseline.
At 1:46 and with the shot clock expiring, the Gophers inbounded to Iverson, whose missed post move was corralled by Johnson, who scooped in a layup while getting fouled and bringing the Gopher lead to 56-52. But again — the Boilermakers answered with their bubbling cauldron of buckets as a deep three by reserve guard Keaton Grant put the Purdue deficit back to one, at 56-55. With under a minute to go, the Gophers ran the shot clock deep on their ensuing possession before Joseph — who was clearly performing with added confidence — tossed up an ill-advised shot which led to a quick transition Purdue basket by Moore, giving Purdue a 57-56 lead.
But despite scoring just two points on the night into the final minute, Westbrook brought the Gophers right back on top with a tough-touch runner in the paint. Minnesota: 58-57. Right back came Purdue. With little hesitation, the Boilers found Grant just past the free-throw line and his pure jumper put Purdue back up by a point.
With just over 4 seconds and the ball past half-court, Tubby Smith and Purdue head Matt Painter exchanged time outs before Johnson would inbound Joseph. The guard darted to his right and found space along the baseline before his game-winning attempt bumped twice off the rim. Johnson was there for the put-back, but it was readily evident his basket occurred a full second after time had expired.
Purdue escapes with a 59-58 win as the Williams Arena crowd empties into the winter night with clasped hands upon shaking heads.
As crushing as this loss was for Minnesota (something of a sourball homage to their 65-64 January 23rd home defeat to Michigan St.), the name loss in the contest could prove Hummel, who spent the second half watching in a warm-up from the bench. True — the Gophers NCAA chances are now all but quashed unless they’re to make a dramatic run at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis (March 11-14), but the Boilermakers are/were a legit Elite Eight bunch. Without Hummel tonight, they looked pretty brutal until their strong close in the last eight minutes. Should Hummel not return (there were whispers that an unfortunate “Pop” was heard with the knee), both Moore and Johnson will need to pick of the scoring even further, and senior Keaton Grant — he of the game-winner — will no doubt be leaned upon to up that 6.4 per into double-digits. Johnson led the Boilers with 14 points and 10 rebounds to go with three blocks. Moore’s 11 points (on just 3-12 shooting) tied his second-lowest output of the season.
A fine performance for Sampson this eve, as he finished with 21 to, again, notch a career high. His seven rebounds also led the Gophers. And while Joseph indeed displayed the aggression and confidence needed from a starting Big Ten point, the Canadian import cooled when rubber met road. His nine second half points (and four second half assists) are really encouraging, but he missed his last three shots, including that earnest attempt at driving The Barn fauna into fervor at the buzzer.
For the Golden Gophers: the ‘09-10 campaign seems to be a “Season to Remember” constructed namely of “Reasons to Forget.”
Judd Spicer is a sportswriter in the Twin Cities with the limited ability to drive to his left. He regularly covers the Minnesota Twins and all things sport for City Pages. Spicer welcomes comments and opportunity via juddspicer.com.