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Don’t Get Down on a Road Trip

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January 6, 2019

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Never get discouraged while preparing for a road trip.

I followed my own advice late last week. Prior to leaving for Madison, Wisconsin, a friend texted that the Golden Gophers were 10 point underdogs for Thursday night’s game against the Badgers. This didn’t put a frown on my face—perhaps because a few days earlier Jim Dutcher (the ex-Gopher coach) predicted a Minnesota win over Wisconsin in Sports Headliners.

If I was searching for discouragement I needed to go no further than the Gophers basketball record book. A Gopher team hadn’t won in Madison since 2009, although Minnesota prompted cardiac arrest among the most emotional U fans last year by taking the Badgers into overtime at the Kohl Center.

I wasn’t that concerned about history when I set out for Madison with a friend last Thursday morning. Nope, and I didn’t get upset when traffic on interstates 90 and 94 resembled Crosstown 62 in Minneapolis. “Left lane hogs” clogging traffic on the interstates in Wisconsin would have fit right in back home.

During the drive my friend and I dissected the Minnesota sports scene, commenting at length on the Gophers, Timberwolves, Twins, Vikings and Wild. We covered enough detail for three or four Sports Headliners columns, but here’s a tease of minutia:

· Disagreement about what team holds the most promise in 2019, with my vote going to the Vikings and my friend leaning toward (gasp!) Gophers football.

· Consensus that the five greatest all-time Twins are (in order): Kirby Puckett, Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Tony Oliva and Joe Mauer.

· Lamenting the length of baseball games and how the duration and tediousness is eating at the interest among even the most passionate MLB fans. One possible solution (multiple are needed) is declaring a batter out after a half dozen or so pitches are fouled off.

A first clue that happiness awaited in Madison could have been the balmy and sunny early January weather. It was warm enough to wear a light jacket and a Madisonian was spotted wearing shorts. (Not sure if beer was involved but word is it does powerful things to the mind and body.)

A first time visit to the Kohl Center was part of the fun in making the trip. I am forever curious about stadiums and arenas. I try to visit as many as possible when travelling—regardless of whether there are games going on.

The Kohl Center was built in 1998, making it one of the newer arenas in major college basketball. It’s a comfortable and impressive place. Think of Target Center on a budget.

The building seats 17,287 for basketball, more for concerts and less for Wisconsin hockey. The Badgers had 143 consecutive basketball sellouts from 2003-2011, and UW has been leading the Big Ten in basketball attendance this winter.

“Bucky” does a great job of paying tribute to past UW sports heroes in the building. The concourses are filled with display cases where you might read about football immortal Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, or Bud Foster who coached the Badgers to their only NCAA men’s basketball title in 1941. Frank “the Tank” Kaminsky, who led the Badgers to consecutive Final Four appearances, has his No. 44 enshrined in the rafters.

Want more name-dropping? Well, what’s a Badger game—in Minneapolis or Madison—without an Andy North sighting. The silver-haired golf guru is still offering his words of wisdom on TV, and showing up to support his beloved Badgers.

Before tipoff a University of Minnesota employee approached us at our seats (provided by a good friend and UW alum). “I still like Williams Arena more,” he said.

His opinion about Minnesota’s iconic building nearing a 100th anniversary certainly didn’t surprise, but he offered something else that I quickly categorized as a good omen about the game’s possible outcome. The Gophers, he said, travelled to Madison by bus—the same mode of transportation the football team used in late November when they won at Wisconsin for the first time since 1994.

The basketball Gophers not only hadn’t won in Madison for nine years but had also lost eight consecutive games to Wisconsin going into Thursday’s get together. I was looking for signs of better things to come, and I received encouragement early in the game.

Minnesota’s players looked prepared from the beginning, mentally focused and playing better defense than sometimes executed by Pitino teams. The Badgers, because of Minnesota’s defense and their own poor shooting, got stuck on six points for a long stretch in the first half in front of a reported crowd of 16,687.

Coffey photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Communications

By halftime the Gophers held a 29-14 lead. Junior guard-forward Amir Coffey had been terrific, making field goals, slashing to the basket for scores and playmaking. He looked, as Dutcher said earlier in the week, like one of the Big Ten’s most versatile players.

During halftime I turned to my friend and predicted the first several minutes after intermission would tell a lot about whether the Badgers came back in the game. Well, once in awhile I am right. Within a few minutes the Gophers put themselves in foul trouble and the Badgers reduced the lead to single digits.

Minnesota, though, never let Wisconsin get closer than four points while earning a significant 59-52 road win that made the Gophers 2-1 in the Big Ten, and left the top 25 ranked Badgers with the same record. While Coffey scored just six points in the second half, and season leading rebounder and scorer Jordan Murphy fouled out of the game, the Gophers got some heroics from guards Brock Stull and Dupree McBrayer.

Stull, a senior transfer who has mostly played limited minutes this season with minimal production, made consecutive three pointers in the second half. Those unexpected six points had Pitino exhilarated on the sidelines and helped turn back a Badger run.

McBrayer, also a senior, turned two consecutive loose balls by the Badgers into points for the Gophers near the game’s end. Those points pretty much did in “Bucky,” although the Badgers still had a chance to tie or win even with 25 seconds to play.

In the closing minutes a lot of Badgers fans vacated their seats and headed for the exits. That was surprising, and so, too, were the boos that reined down on the Badger players and coaches during parts of the game. Maybe some Wisconsin fans are spoiled after so many Big Ten titles and trips to the NCAA Tournament during the last 20 years.

I am not encouraging booing college athletes but the frustration of Badger fans was understandable. Their Badgers made only seven of 17 free throws during a night their fans could have pleaded, “Is their shot doctor in the house?”

The Gophers held Wisconsin to an uncharacteristically low 22.7 percent on three pointers. The Badgers made just five of 22 attempts. D’Mitrik Trice, who entered the game converting more than 50 percent of his three point shots, made two of seven. Badgers star center Ethan Happ bedeviled Gophers defenders with his low post moves and shots but made just one of seven free throws on a night when he scored 17 points.

Guard Brad Davison and forward Nate Reuvers, both Minnesota natives, played 30 and 32 minutes respectively. Davison, whose image was on the game tickets, had an off night, scoring four points with two assists. Reuvers, whose photo was on the game program, helped lead the Wisconsin second half comeback. He scored 12 points with five rebounds.

Badgers fan don’t like losing to their “border rival” but none uttered a negative word to us as we made our way out of the Kohl Center and to the parking ramp. Not even my companion’s Gopher jacket could prompt a look of disdain or curt remark from our border neighbors.

In return I offer my red outfitted friends the following advice: Don’t get discouraged either at home or on the road. “Bucky” will be back.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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