Blake Beats Buzzer Again

Freshman guard Blake Hoffarber gave the Gophers an improbable win with an improbable buzzer beater against Indiana. It set the stage for semifinal game against the Illini Saturday.

Somehow, the Gophers have advanced in the Big Ten Tournament and will now face Illinois, a team that's beaten Minnesota 19 straight times, dating back to the 1999 Big Ten Tournament.

Just last week, Minnesota fell by nine points at Illinois, after the Illini had beaten them by 24 points at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. But this is a different setting.

Illinois is coming off a win over Purdue, while Minnesota brings in a lot of momentum after its win over Indiana. And both teams won in down-to-the-wire contests.

Minnesota can keep its faint NCAA tourney hopes alive with a win over Illinois. But they'll have to rebound. The last time the two teams faced each other the Illini outrebounded the Gophers 45 to 19.

Tubby Smith put the Gophers in shoulder pads and football helmets in their first practice after last week's Illinois loss to teach the team a lesson about toughness. They responded with one of their gutsiest performances of the year against Indiana.

MINNESOTA 59, INDIANA 58: Travis Bush threw a 75-foot pass to Blake Hoffarber who turned around and hit a shot with 1.5 seconds left. The former ESPY award winner repeated the antics that earned him the honor — he hit a shot from the seat of his pants in high school to send him team into overtime during the state playoffs in 2005.

Hoffarber's shot concluded a series of incredulous events. D.J. White was fouled twice and shot four free throws in the game's final 10 seconds. He only hit one, but it was enough to give Indiana a 58-57 lead, as thousands of Hoosiers fans that'd traveled to the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis from Bloomington, Ind., cheered them on.

Their victory seemed almost a given, based on their two wins against Minnesota earlier this season. But Minnesota stepped up to shockingly steal a 59-58 victory. The win puts them in the middle of a hotly debated NCAA tourney bubble conversation.

NOTES

  • G Blake Hoffarber's shot to beat Indiana March 14 was only one of many clutch plays he's made all season. The freshman led the team in scoring against Florida State Nov. 27. He's shooting better than 45 percent from the 3-point line.

  • C Spencer Tollackson sat out against Indiana on Friday. His left ankle sprain kept him out of most of the team's close win over Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. But the team still played well without him. He believes he'll be ready to go against Illinois.

  • G Kevin Payton returned to the starting lineup against Illinois March 8, after seeing limited playing time throughout the season. Payton began the year as the team's starting point guard. But quickly lost the role and played sparingly throughout the season.

    IN FOCUS: Lawrence Westbrook and Lawrence McKenzie are difficult matchups for some teams. But the bigger issue, pun intended, is Minnesota's beef against Illinois. If the Gophers can exploit mismatches inside and get the penetrate-and-kick offense to work against a smothering Illini defense, a championship appearance isn't out of the question.

  • The Gophers showed an interest in rebounding as a team in Friday's win. Indiana was outrebounded by Minnesota 42-36 despite the fact the Gophers played without big man Spencer Tollackson.

  • G Lawrence Westbrook is just six feet tall, and that's being generous. In spite of his size, however, he's been on a tear recently. He's scored in double figures in three of the team's last five games.

  • Minnesota's lack of rebounding in the Illinois game March 8 proved how the team's deficiency in that category has hurt them all season. The Gophers are 4-8 when they're outrebounded by an opponent.

  • G Lawrence McKenzie looked tired after losing to Illinois March 8. The senior had nearly willed the Gophers to three straight come from behind victories, but he clearly struggled late against Indiana March 5, after a 26-point performance against Ohio State March 1. As McKenzie goes, so goes the team. A refreshed McKenzie could lead the Gophers to a few victories in the Big Ten Tournament. A tired McKenzie won't be able to help them much down the stretch.

    PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — F Dan Coleman, C Spencer Tollackson, G Lawrence Westbrook, G Lawrence McKenzie, G Kevin Payton. Key Subs — G Blake Hoffarber; F Damian Johnson.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "When Blake Hoffarber is your leading scorer, you've got issues." — Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith said after his team lost its 19th straight game against Illinois. The Illini grabbed 45 rebounds compared to Minnesota's 19.

    GAME REVIEW:

    Illinois 67, Minnesota 58

    Minnesota 55, Northwestern 52 (Big Ten tournament first round)

    Minnesota 59, Indiana 58 (Big Ten tournament quarterfinal)

    GAME PREVIEW:

    vs. Illinois, Saturday, March 15 (Big Ten tournament semifinal)

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