Hours after facing questions about Gophers women’s basketball coach Lindsay Whalen’s abrupt dismissal, U athletics director Mark Coyle took his usual seat a few rows behind the bench for Thursday’s men’s basketball game at Williams Arena.
Coyle, a regular at home games, listened in postgame news conferences all season as second-year Gophers coach Ben Johnson talked about injuries and inexperience contributing to USA’s longest losing streak in seven years.
The Gophers could have quit while down 10 points with a little more than a minute left, but they ended their 12-game streak with a three-pointer from Jamison Battle in a 75-74 win over Rutgers at the Barn.
“This was a (tough) day,” Coyle said after the game. “But great win.”
The Gophers (8-20, 2-16 Big Ten) saw Battle score 15 of his 20 points in the second half on 5-for-9 shooting from beyond the arc. Three of his six three-pointers came in the final 22 seconds, including one that sealed the team’s first Big Ten home win of the season.
“Life sometimes isn’t always fair,” Johnson said. “But that doesn’t mean you can stop. … It’s an example to all our guys that they just had to keep showing up. If you keep showing up, you never know what can happen.”
After Caleb McConnell’s missed free throw with five seconds left, Ta’Lon Cooper rolled the ball up the floor before picking it up to start the clock for one final play. Cooper drove the field and kicked the ball out to Battle. The junior forward took a step back to free himself from Rutgers’ Cam Spencer before nailing the clutch jumper.
Officials spent over 10 minutes after the clock expired trying to determine if Cooper’s leg touched the ball which would have started the clock earlier. The fans erupted when the waiting game was over. Bucket good.
“It was something you dream about,” Battle said. “I think it’s just consistent with all the work we’ve put in, that I’ve put in. It’s just a reward for that work. It feels good.”
The Gophers team that suffered a 90-55 loss on Feb. 1 in Piscataway, NJ, was much different than the one that emerged Thursday. The fans saw glimpses of the team’s potential.
The early highlight of the night came when Dawson Garcia connected with Pharrel Payne for an alley-oop dunk in the first half. Garcia and Payne, who combined for 34 points and 17 rebounds, looked like Johnson’s frontcourt for the future, especially with star recruit Dennis Evans recently released from his letter of intent.
“We show up every day, we fight every day,” Garcia said. “Seeing it pay off live is a great feeling. We’re going to feel it a lot more.”
In the second half, Rutgers outscored the Gophers 10-3 to take a 50-36 lead on a reverse layup from Cliff Omoruyi, who finished with a team-high 23 points and 11 rebounds. The Gophers gave up 17 second-chance points on 15 offensive boards.
With three minutes left, Braeden Carrington limped off the floor after Omoruyi dunked after another Scarlet Knights offensive board. He watched from the bench as his teammates continued to battle.
Whalen texted Johnson after the game to congratulate him on the last-second victory. “She showed up every day to work,” Johnson said. “She is one of the most positive people.”