Saturday, March 15, 2008
Minnesota's miracle worker makes his second shot for the ages
By Pat Forde ESPN.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- Turns out Blake Hoffarber can make history standing up, too.
The new undisputed Mr. Big Shot of March made himself a candidate for a second career ESPY late Friday night in Conseco Fieldhouse, at age 19. The Minnesota freshman won an ESPY in 2005 for hitting a tying shot from his backside in the Minnesota state high school championship game. Now, standing on his own two feet, he has put the Gophers in the Big Ten tournament semifinals and back into NCAA tournament contention with another shot worthy of an ESPYS nom this summer.
Odds of hitting one of those shots in a lifetime? Slimmer than Paris Hilton.
Hitting two? As they say in Minnesota, you betcha!
(For his next trick, Hoffarber will bounce in a buzzer-beater off his head.)
New scouting report on the Minnetonka Miracle Worker: Quadruple-team the dude in end-game situations.
Hoffarber and teammate Travis Busch went Hill-to-Laettner on Indiana in the Big Ten quarterfinals, ending a wild game with a 77-foot pass, leaping catch and leaning shot that swished after the buzzer to stupefy the Hoosiers 59-58.
"I want to slap myself two times to make sure I'm not dreaming," Gophers guard Lawrence McKenzie said. " It's just amazing. I'm still in shock right now."
Shock rippled through the arena immediately after the shot splashed in. Hoffarber was buried by teammates in the corner of the court. Minnesota coach Tubby Smith was embraced by his assistants. Thousands of Indiana fans stood in slack-jawed disbelief as a season full of jarring plot twists took another bizarre turn.
All of 1.5 seconds earlier, the Hoosiers faithful were raucously celebrating what looked like an incredibly fortunate victory. Down 16 in the first half, they steadily fought back against valiant-but-short-handed Minnesota. Down 57-52, Indiana scored what appeared to be the last six points of the game in 90 seconds.
It already was a crazy finish before Hoffarber went heroic.
When D.J. White made a foul shot to end a streak of five straight missed IU free throws in the final 43 seconds, the Gophers' NIT ticket appeared to be punched. They'd gotten some tough calls in the last minute, failed to grab some key rebounds, and seen victory all but slip away.
"I felt like the game was not being taken from us, but it was going to be a really bad, disappointing time if we lost it," said Gophers assistant Saul Smith, son of Tubby Smith.
There were 1.5 seconds left when Tubby scribbled out the final play in a timeout. For comparison's sake, that's .6 less than Duke had to work the most famous miracle in college hoops history.
Freshman Blake Hoffarber's miracle shot was the buzzer-beater of the season.
In other words, this was a prayer.
"Coach made up a good play, and we executed it," Hoffarber said.
Well, not exactly. Upon further questioning, Hoffarber admitted that what happened bore little resemblance to what was drawn up.
Smith called for Busch to run the baseline, then uncork a pass past midcourt. Nobody seemed to remember the intended target of said pass -- but it wasn't Hoffarber. He was supposed to be a decoy, running off a double screen and hopefully diverting the Hoosiers away from where the ball was going.
The only thing that went according to script was Busch's move on the baseline, which freed up some room in front of Jordan Crawford and allowed him to throw the ball deep. Busch was going to play quarterback at Mounds View (Minn.) High School, but he broke his finger at the beginning of practice as a freshman. He wound up gravitating back to basketball after that, but no Gophers QB has ever thrown a better pass than this one.
"I saw the ball going to the middle, and I just went up and got it and tried to get it off in time," Hoffarber said.
Don't underestimate the catch, which came in traffic and did not result in an off-balance heave. White sailed Hoffarber, apparently trying to deflect the pass. Hoosiers forward Jamarcus Ellis remained behind Hoffarber's back.
Fortuitously for the Gophers, Hoffarber is a lefty, so he turned to his left -- away from the defense and into a clear look at the hoop. He lifted off his right foot and launched with about .4 seconds left.
"I felt like it was good," Hoffarber said.
At the other end of the court, Busch concurred.
"I crossed the end line, and I was like, 'He can make this,'" Busch said. "That 1.5 seconds was the longest time of my entire life."
The horn sounded when the ball was in flight. Then it cleanly caressed the net. I was in Philly for the Laettner shot in '92, and I can tell you: This was a tougher catch and tougher shot.
"I was just kind of in disbelief," Hoffarber said. "Then my teammates attacked me."
Tubby Smith orchestrated the upset over Indiana, the biggest win in his first season at Minnesota.
But if you thought the on-court dogpile was something, it apparently paled in comparison with the postgame scene in the Minnesota locker room.
"Pandemonium," Busch said. "Just going crazy. Throwing chairs. I chucked a few chairs. They can send me the bill if I broke a couple."
If you're scoring at home, the pass was Minnesota Mr. Basketball 2005 to Minnesota Mr. Basketball 2007, a pair of supporting actors who stole the show and their home state's hearts.
Hoffarber has had a promising season, averaging 8.6 points per game while coming off the bench, but he didn't earn conference all-freshman honors. Busch has been a bench jockey, playing five total minutes in the Gophers' final nine regular-season games.
Busch saw five minutes of action in Minnesota's opening-round win, an ungainly 55-52 struggle past Northwestern. Friday night, he was pressed into 11 minutes of duty, his second most of the season.
The situation was fairly desperate for Minnesota most of the night, despite its racing to a 24-8 lead. Center Spencer Tollackson, the Gophers' third-leading scorer, was out after spraining his ankle against Northwestern. Then leading scorer Dan Coleman picked up two quick fouls to start the game -- and added two more early in the second half. He played just 13 minutes and scored only six points.
So Smith was cobbling together lineups against a team that already had beaten the Gophers twice. If any doubted Tubby's in-game coaching ability before Friday night, they don't anymore. At one point, he had Busch, a 6-foot-4 guard/forward, checking 6-8, 300-plus-pound monstrosity DeAndre Thomas -- and lived to tell about it.
For a time, every bounce seemed to go Minnesota's way. And on the few bounces that didn't, the Gophers outhustled 25-7 Indiana.
"We just kind of kept putting our nose in there, kept diving on the floor," Hoffarber said.
But sheer effort eventually was trumped by the Hoosiers' size, power, skill and luck.
When Eric Gordon drove hard to the basket and was fouled with 3.4 seconds left and Indiana down two, Conseco celebrated. Gordon is an 85 percent foul shooter, so these figured to be good.
Only they weren't. He missed the first, then apparently tried to miss the second on purpose but without hammering it off the glass.
The result was a double-bouncer that wound up in the big hands of White, who tipped it back in the basket as he was (allegedly) fouled by Jonathan Williams. Suddenly Indiana wasn't playing just to tie but to win.
But White missed his free throw, and Minnesota committed the third-grade sin of not blocking out the shooter. White got his hands on the rebound and was whacked across the arm by McKenzie, putting him back on the line with 1.5 seconds remaining.
White missed the first, and the tension grew. Then he made the second and the Indiana fans erupted.
Surely, it was over. But nobody broke the news to the guys in the yellow jerseys.
"I just told all the guys to calm down," McKenzie said. "I really felt we had a chance to make a shot."
It didn't hurt to have a guy on the floor who already had made a shot for the ages. You can find video of Hoffarber flinging the ball in from his back with 0.2 seconds left in overtime, lifting the Hopkins Royals into a second OT, in which they eventually won the state title.
Busch was in the stands that day, watching Hoffarber's shot. His team already had been eliminated from the state tournament. He remembers thinking, "That was crazy."
This was pretty crazy, too. Without it, Minnesota's NCAA tournament dreams were gone. Now, with last-minute victories in two days and a stunning semifinal date with No. 10 seed Illinois ahead, those dreams are revived.
"I don't want to say it felt like destiny," McKenzie said. "But something like that."
Who can blame Minnesota for feeling like a team of destiny now? Especially when it has the Minnetonka Miracle Worker on its side?
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.