Minnesota advanced past the semifinals and into the Big Ten Tournament's championship game for the first time in four tries, as it led from start-to-finish in a complete dismantling of sixth-ranked and No. 2 seed Purdue, 69-42, on Saturday afternoon at Conseco Fieldhouse.
For the second-straight game, the sixth-seeded Golden Gophers (21-12) used a 17-0 run to open a wide lead against one of the Big Ten's co-champions. Friday night against #11 Michigan State, the run allowed Minnesota to build a lead that helped it eliminate the Spartans in overtime, 72-67. This afternoon, the Gophers turned a 9-4 lead into an almost unfathomable 26-4 advantage, as Purdue (27-5) was held scoreless for a remarkable 11 minutes and 26 seconds midway through the opening half.
Minnesota set the tone early, jumping out to a 7-0 lead on a layup by sophomore forward Ralph Sampson III, followed by a jumper by senior guard Lawrence Westbrook, and a three-pointer from junior guard Blake Hoffarber, his only points of the afternoon.
With the score at 9-4 in favor of the Gophers, both teams followed with scoring droughts of greater than four minutes, but the Gophers broke out of theirs by getting a layup by senior forward Damian Johnson, followed by a short shot in the lane by sophomore center Colton Iverson to stretch the lead to 13-4 and force a Purdue timeout with 10:13 remaining in the half. Sampson then made back-to-back jumpers from around the free throw line to make it 17-4, and it grew to 19-4 at the under 8:00 timeout.
Trailing 26-4, Purdue finally ended its lengthy drought by getting a field goal by E'Twaun Moore to fall, but Minnesota didn't let up on its way to a 37-11 lead at the break. Moore was a dismal 1-for-12 from the field in the opening 20 minutes, as Purdue's point total was the second-lowest in 120 previous Big Ten Tournament games dating back to 1998. It also marked the fewest points in the first half for a Purdue team since the school began keeping such records in 1950.
Minnesota struggled to start the second half by making just one of its first 10 field goal attempts, which allowed the Boilermakers to cut into the lead. Purdue got as close as 18 points, 39-21, but the Gophers were able to continue scoring by going 5-of-6 at the free throw line until sophomore guard Devoe Joseph connected on Minnesota's second field goal of the half at the 12:09 mark to keep the Gophers comfortably in front, 46-22.
Head coach Tubby Smith then enjoyed the luxury of resting most of his starters over the game's final 10 minutes, and the Gophers' reserves were able to maintain a lead of between 25 and 34 points during that time. The final 27-point win was Minnesota's 12th victory of 20-plus points this season, tying the 1902-03 Gophers team for the most blowout wins in a single season. In addition, it was the second-largest margin of victory in the history of the Big Ten Tournament, and it came against a Purdue team which had won 13 of its previous 14 games.
Sampson led the Gophers with 13 points, while adding five rebounds, three assists, and two blocked shots after being held scoreless in Friday's quarterfinal win against Michigan State. Iverson continued his solid play at the tournament, finishing with 11 points and six rebounds, while Joseph had 10 points, seven boards, and four assists in just 22 minutes.
Junior forward Paul Carter grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds to go along with eight points for the Gophers, who held a dominating 50-to-26 edge in rebounding. Westbrook was also aggressive on the boards, chasing down six caroms in the contest.
It was the ninth career Big Ten Tournament game for both Westbrook and Johnson, who surpassed Dan Coleman's previous best of eight during 2005-08. Westbrook and Johnson each also finished with five points in today's win, giving them each 80 career points in Big Ten Tournament contests. The two Gopher seniors enter Sunday's game tied with Vincent Grier (2005-06) for most career points scored in the conference's postseason tourney, with Grier reaching the total in four games. Johnson also ranks second with 38 career rebounds, trailing only Dusty Rychart (1999-2002), who grabbed 46 boards over five career games.
As a team, Minnesota made 24-of-50 (.480) field goals, with 43 of the attempts coming from inside the three-point line. The Gophers also shot the ball well at the charity stripe, making 19-of-26 attempts for 73.1 percent. Not surprisingly, Purdue's offensive numbers were lethargic, as the Boilers made just 16-of-58 (.276) field goals after hitting just 5-of-27 (.185) in the first half. The Boilermakers were held to 2-of-14 (.167) from beyond the arc, and even found it difficult at the free throw line, where they were 8-of-18 (.444) in the loss.
JaJuan Johnson was the Boilers' top scorer, connecting on 7-of-16 field goals for 17 points to go with his team-high four rebounds, while D.J. Byrd came off the bench to record 11 points in 15 minutes. After struggling in the first half, Moore rolled his ankle in the second half, and finished with just two points on 1-of-14 shooting.
The win was the 450th of Smith's 18-year career, and it marked his 100th game on the sidelines at Minnesota. Smith's career mark now stands at 450-182 (.712), while he is 63-37 (.630) in his third season with the Gophers. Smith also owns a record of 34-12 all-time in conference tournaments, including 6-2 at Minnesota.
The Gophers' third win in three days moves them into Sunday's title game, where they will face top-seeded and fifth-ranked Ohio State (26-7), which defeated #5 seed Illinois 88-81 in double overtime in Saturday's other semifinal. Sunday's game will tip off at 2:30 p.m. (Central) and will be televised nationally on CBS Sports.