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Minnesota won the tip and moved into their offense, and in front of them the ‘Cats settled into a 2-3 zone. This was Wednesday night at Allstate and that defense flummoxed the Gophs, who with their first possession committed a shot clock violation. Now, off a drive-and-dish from Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law dropped a three from the left corner, and then there was Goph guard Dupree McBrayer driving and Dererk Pardon challenging him and altering his shot and grabbing the rebound. “It got us off to a quick start,” Chris Collins would later say of this sequence.
It also augured the nature of this game’s first half, a half the ‘Cats dominated with a zone often augmented by a 2-2-1 press. The Gophs, against those ploys, did manage 12 points in its first nine minutes, but over its next 10 they added only five more. They would get another five in the half’s last 64 seconds, but at intermission they were shooting 22.2 percent overall (six-of-27), 23.1 percent on their threes (three-of-13) and trailing the ‘Cats 43-21. “Certainly. They haven’t played a lot of it,” their coach Richard Pitino would say when asked if the zone had surprised him.
“I thought our defense early was good,” Collins said. “We haven’t really played much zone. We haven’t really pressed like that at all in five years. So I’m sure initially in the game— I thought they settled in and were better in the second half. But I think in the first half it took them awhile to get adjusted to what we were doing.”
“We changed up some things that we did,” McIntosh said. “It was to make teams think about what (defense) we’re in and slow them down. That wastes some clock and now they’ve got to figure out what they’re going to do in a late clock situation. I thought we did a really good job of that in the first half.”
They did. But there was more at work here than mere Xs and Os.
The ‘Cats entered this one after dropping two straight, after losing three of four and after performances that often appeared feckless. That was especially true five days earlier when they fell by 15 at Penn State, a burnout so bad they would follow it with a pair off meetings McIntosh labelled “Come to Jesus moments.” One was for players only and here they spoke the truth to each other, and the other was with their coach and he was the only one who spoke.
Then there were even more meetings, meetings involving just Collins and his staff. “We’ve just been in a little bit of a rut. You guys have seen it,” he would say of them late on this Wednesday night. “It’s not that we’re not trying hard. It’s not that we’re not playing hard. But there’s something that’s really important to me, and it’s called spirit. It’s called passion. I just haven’t seen a lot of that the last couple weeks. It happens. It doesn’t make anybody bad. Really, it’s my responsibility. I take that personal when my team’s not doing that. So we just got together as a staff to try and figure out what can we do to regain some spirit, to regain some hope and some life. We really like what we do offensively. We feel we’re doing the right things on that end. So we just thought throwing a few curve balls here and there with some zones and some presses might give us some energy. Sometimes you do something new and it gives the guys a little life. I thought for tonight it worked.”
And when he spoke to the team at that Come to Jesus meeting, what was his message?
“Obviously you want to keep things mainly in-house. To me the locker room is sacred and the things you talk about are sacred,” he said. “But it was about the things I just talked about. How do we regain our heart and how do we regain our spirit? The guys in the locker room have meant so much to me over these past three, four years that it’s all worth it to all of us to finish this thing out with a supreme fight, a supreme spirit. That was the main message. How do we get that back? How do we go forward these last 14, 15 games, and be united, and be connected, and go our there and just fight as one.”
The ‘Cats, on this night, fought as one from the start, and in the second half pushed back willfully each time the Gophs tried to make a run. Never, in these 20 minutes, would their margin fall below 14, and here they galloped away to a 23-point win behind a cross-section of performers.
There was McIntosh, who less than two weeks earlier had thought his career was over after his left knee was rolled by Brown guard Zach Hunsaker. He would end his night with five rebounds and 11 points, with no turnovers and a school-record 16 assists, taking that mark away from former ‘Cat assistant and current UW-Milwaukee coach Patrick Baldwin. “I know somewhere in Milwaukee Coach Baldwin’s going to be upset,” Collins would joke. “Every time he (McIntosh) got close, Pat would tell me to get him out. He couldn’t save him tonight.”
“It’s really special. Coach Baldwin and I had a really close relationship,” said McIntosh himself. “I think he really wanted me to break it. Knowing I was able to break it and can share it with him will be really neat. I’m really excited to hear from him.”
There was Scottie Lindsey, who finished with a team-high 22 while shooting eight-of-14 overall and three-of-seven on his threes. “He was much more efficient tonight. He took good shots,” Collins said of him. “When he takes good shots, he’s going to score and he’s going to shoot a good percentage.”
Then always there was the indomitable and persistent Pardon, who shot five-of-seven and scored 13 points and grabbed a dozen rebounds and blocked half-a-dozen shots. “He was terrific,” Collins said of him, and he was not exaggerating.
This was, then, a collective win, a win that personified the ‘Cats at their best. “The formula for us,” Collins had said a day earlier, “has always been all of us coming together. We’ve been at our best when we’ve had chemistry, when we’ve moved the ball, when we’ve played team defense.”
They, even more pointedly, have been at their best when they play with a pep in their step, which they did once again on Wednesday night after their series of flat-footed performances. “We,” Lindsey would say, “got back to really having a lot of fun playing, and playing with joy. The way we played is definitely going to build everyone’s confidence.”
“All the joy we played with was great, incredible,” McIntosh added.
“Tonight was a night we needed,” Collins finally said. “I don’t think it’s any secret. We had a tough stretch. I was just really pleased with the life and the passion and the excitement. That was our main message after the Penn State game— regardless of what happens, we’ve got to regain our heart, we’ve got to regain our spirit.”
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