MINNEAPOLIS — Indiana was starting to settle in again at No. 1 after weeks of shuffling at the top of the national rankings in this wildly unpredictable season of college basketball.
Trevor Mbakwe and Minnesota stepped forward, flexed their muscles and did their best to push the Hoosiers out.
Mbakwe had 21 points and 12 rebounds to help the Gophers take down top-ranked Indiana 77-73 on Tuesday night, the seventh time the No. 1 team in The Associated Press’ poll has lost a game this season.
“We’re trying to do big things so we have to learn from this mistake, but we have to dust it off real fast,” Hoosiers star Victor Oladipo said.
Andre Hollins added 16 points for the Gophers (19-9, 7-8 Big Ten), who outrebounded Cody Zeller and the Hoosiers by a whopping 44-30 and solidified their slipping NCAA tournament bid with an emphatic performance against the Big Ten leader. The fans swarmed the court as the last second ticked off, the first time that’s happened here in years.
“We weren’t physical enough on the glass. That’s the bottom line,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said.
Zeller was held to nine points with four turnovers for the Hoosiers (24-4, 12-3), who have held the No. 1 ranking for 10 of 17 polls this season including the last four. Oladipo scored 16 points, but 14 of the 17 points by Jordan Hulls came before halftime.
“Cody’s certainly capable of a lot,” Crean said, “and I think he’ll bounce back just fine.”
Mbakwe, a sixth-year senior, posted his conference-leading seventh double-double. At 24 years old, he was a man among boys in many ways in this game, dominating both ends of the court when the Gophers needed him most. Minnesota had 23 offensive rebounds.
“We did need to play with a sense of urgency, play with a little edge,” Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. “I think Trevor set that tone for us.”
Elliott Eliason, who played every bit as well as Zeller, the slender sophomore in the post on the other side, scored seven straight points for Minnesota to tie the game at 46 shortly after Oladipo’s reverse layup had given the Hoosiers a 44-36 edge, their biggest of the game.
Hollins, who missed eight of his first nine shots, scraped off a high screen by Eliason to pull up for a 3-pointer and give the Gophers a 51-48 lead. Mbakwe got a rebound to keep a key possession alive then grabbed another board to set up his off-balance bank shot to make it 56-53 in favor of Minnesota.
“I didn’t feel I was playing up to my potential lately. I just wanted to come out and be aggressive,” Mbakwe said.
Mbakwe was called for a loudly questioned blocking foul, his fourth, with 4:39 remaining on Zeller’s fast-break layup and free throw that put the Hoosiers up 59-58. But Austin Hollins answered with a pump-fake layup that drew a foul for a three-point play and a two-point advantage for the Gophers.
The Hoosiers didn’t lead again, and Joe Coleman’s fast-break dunk with 2:35 left gave Minnesota a 68-61 cushion, enough of one to withstand a couple of 3-pointers by Christian Watford and one by Hulls in the closing minutes.
Mbakwe, who played for Crean when they were at Marquette in 2007-08, has had some of his better games against the Hoosiers.
This was his best.
He gave the Gophers and their home crowd a double-shot of energy early with 10 points in the first 6½ minutes, plus a jarring block of Zeller’s inside shot that knocked the 7-footer to the court.
“He’s a high-level, high-energy, tough guy who plays the game at a desperate level,” Crean said. “Obviously I’m biased, but there’s no shame in that.”
Zeller, Indiana’s leading scorer and the second-best shooter in the Big Ten behind Oladipo, was 0 for 4 from the field in the first half with two turnovers, two fouls and two points. The Gophers scored only three points in the last 7 minutes of the half, but they trailed only 34-30.
The Hoosiers are still in position for their first outright Big Ten regular season championship since 1993, with a one-game edge in the loss column over Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin. With home games against Iowa and Ohio State, Indiana could still clinch the title before the finale at Michigan on March 10.
For now, though, the Hoosiers have to regroup and re-establish their inside game after the trampling in the paint they endured here.
“They were relentless on the glass. We just didn’t do a great job of boxing them out,” Oladipo said.
The Gophers were back on their uniquely raised home court, trying desperately to boost spirits that have sagged under the weight of eight losses in their previous 11 games. Smith even had the team meet with a sports psychologist. They hadn’t topped 58 points in their previous five games. After being ranked in 11 straight polls, the Gophers didn’t get one vote this week.
They’ll get a few in the next one.
“We’ve had a lot of people supporting them, encouraging them. I think they knew how important the game was, but I sensed a very calm, matter-of-fact group of guys,” Smith said, adding: “They’re very confident about who they are.”