Minnesota saved their season on Tuesday night, as the team that everyone had left for dead knocked off No. 1 Indiana at home, 77-73.
And the credit for the win should fall squarely on the shoulders of senior big man Trevor Mbakwe.
Mbakwe finished with 21 points and 12 boards, six of which came on the offensive end of the floor, but the real difference that he made — when Mbakwe won the game for the Gophers — was in the first 6:05.
First, he grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on a putback. Then he hit a jumper, and followed that up with a dunk on the next possession. After a pair of buckets from Rodney Williams, Mbakwe grabbed another offensive rebound and was fouled, hitting both free throws. Then, on the ensuing possession, he grabbed his third offensive rebound of the game, finishing another layup inside.
Finally, at the other end of the floor, Mbakwe came out of nowhere to block a Cody Zeller dunk at the rim.
Reading through those last three paragraphs doesn’t sound like much, but Mbakwe completely set the tone for the game. He whipped the crowd into a frenzy, he got his teammates fired up and into the game, and he sent Cody Zeller — who played one of his worst games of the season — backpedaling.
That matters because, entering Tuesday night, Minnesota looked like a team that had already resigned themselves to their NIT fate.
They were coming off of a stretch of eight losses in their last 11 games. They had just been taken behind the woodshed by both Iowa and Ohio State in the last seven days, losing those two games by a combined 47 points. They had no confidence. They were indecisive. There was no effort. I don’t think that it is fair to say that Minnesota was apathetic about the rest of the season, but it is fair to say that they played that way.
It looked like a lost cause.
Until Mbakwe came out and took over, and the rest of his team followed suit. The Gophers, as a team, simply manhandled Indiana in the paint, dominating the offensive glass and coming up with seemingly every loose ball. For the first time in two months, Minnesota actually won the battle of wills; they simply wanted it more than the Hoosiers.
That doesn’t happen if Mbakwe doesn’t start the game in the way that he did. That doesn’t happen if he doesn’t get his teammates fired up and get them motivated. That doesn’t happen if the crowd isn’t into the game from the start.
Think about it like this: Minnesota beat the No. 1 team in the country despite shooting 4-20 from three on what were, more often than not, open looks.
At the end of the day, what this Gopher team was missing was leadership.
On Tuesday night, Mbakwe provided just that.
And with Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue left on the schedule, there’s no reason that Minnesota (19-9, 7-8) can’t get to 10 league wins and head into the Big Ten tournament on a four-game winning streak.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.