MINNEAPOLIS – On Thursday night, Rodney Williams grimaced as he held his left shoulder.
With his team facing a deficit in the second half of a 58-53 overtime victory against No. 20 Wisconsin at Williams Arena, the senior tried to ignore the pain of an injury that forced him to miss last Sunday's loss to Illinois.
Williams has nearly exhausted his tomorrows. And his team needs him now.
So when he aggravated the shoulder injury in the second half, he did not put on his warm-ups and tell his coaches he couldn’t go. He just went to the team’s trainer and asked for ibuprofen and a glass of water. A few minutes later, he checked back into the game.
“I just wanted to go out there and fight for my teammates,” said Williams, who sported a cantaloupe-sized ice pack on his left shoulder following the victory.
His teammates channeled the same attitude against the Badgers. Finally, the Gophers played with a hunger they’ve tapped during stretches throughout the season. It’s a resilience they lacked during a period that included six losses in eight games.
After a rough first half Thursday night, the Gophers pushed the pace against a Wisconsin team that’s accustomed to controlling the tempo.
Williams scored on a tip-in, drew a foul and hit the free throw with 14 minutes, 32 seconds remaining in regulation. That sequence tied the game at 33. A pair of Andre Hollins free throws gave Minnesota its first lead, 35-33, on its next possession. A Trevor Mbakwe dunk put the Gophers up after Wisconsin pulled back even.
But the Badgers, up 49-47 late, regained the edge and nearly sealed the game in the final seconds of regulation after Mike Bruesewitz drew an offensive foul on Austin Hollins with 22 seconds to go. On the next play, however, Bruesewitz committed a turnover on the inbounds.
Sophomore Joe Coleman was fouled, and he hit the free throws to tie the game at 49-49 with 17.4 seconds to go.
Yet, the teams' second game nearly ended like their first. In the Jan. 26 meeting in Madison, Traevon Jackson hit the game winner with 4 seconds to play in a 45-44 victory for the Badgers. Jackson had the ball again Thursday on his team’s final possession.
But it was a messy finish that concluded regulation as Jackson’s last-second shot clanked off the backboard.
By then, the Gophers had already recaptured the night. The Badgers failed to record a field goal after Ben Brust’s jumper with 6:18 to play in regulation until Jared Berggren’s layup with 10 seconds remaining in overtime.
“It started on defense,” said Mbakwe. “We got a lot of key stops at the end. We made Wisconsin play our tempo a little bit and that’s kind of hard, especially against a team like that.”
In overtime, Andre Hollins hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 3:40 to go and blew a kiss to the crowd. Mbawke, a 62 percent free throw shooter entering the game, hit a pair on Minnesota’s following possession to give the Gophers a 54-49 lead with 1:32 left. The teams traded free throws down the stretch but the Badgers (17-8, 8-4 Big Ten) couldn’t secure the shots necessary to overcome the Gophers’ late push.
“We just kept being aggressive, kept being aggressive on defense,” Coleman said. “We try to make the least amount of mistakes possible, and I think we really focused in on that at the end of the game … it helped going into overtime. We were playing so aggressive and it helped.”
Hollins led all scorers with 21 points. As a team, the Gophers (eight turnovers) held the Badgers (10-for-17 from the free throw line) to a 30.5 percent shooting clip in arguably their most significant Big Ten matchup of the year.
The pressure has become palpable in Minneapolis.
The Gophers (18-7, 6-6) have fallen in the Big Ten standings and lost their national ranking. Tubby Smith’s job status has been questioned by local media. Earlier this week, the Star Tribune’s Jim Souhan wrote a column titled “If Tubby can’t turn this around, it’s time to get [Shaka] Smart.”
“The sky was falling around here. Sometimes when the sky is falling and you’re lying under the ceiling, you think it’s going to cave in on you,” Smith said after the game. “They wanted it, but we had to have it. That was the key tonight.”
“Desperate” is a term that’s frequently used to describe the condition of any college basketball team that’s struggling in mid-February.
The bubble is big. And the subjective process of a selection committee that consults stats, standings, RPI figures and overall resumes to determine the teams that will earn 37 at-large slots on Selection Sunday, fuels paranoia.
Are we in or are we out?
The Gophers seemed desperate entering Thursday's game. But most of their recent losses came in matchups against ranked Big Ten teams. So they maintained a top-20 RPI.
They’re not Illinois or Villanova or Baylor.
But the expectation for 2012-13 is not an at-large bid. The expectation is an at-large bid and a few wins.
Smith has not won an NCAA tournament matchup in his six seasons with the Gophers.
“We don’t listen to too much on the outside,” Mbakwe said. “I know a lot of people were high on us. We [lost] down the stretch and people were like, ‘This is the same old Minnesota team.’”
Winning is the only elixir for that perception.
Thursday’s victory was a good start.
But it certainly won’t cure the pain of a program that’s feigned progress in the past.