A crowd of 13,443 came to Williams Arena tonight probably expecting to lend little more than moral support to the University of Minnesota's basketball team, which was resuming its schedule after a tumultuous week in which five players were suspended and the continuation of the season hung in the balance.
The five remaining healthy scholarship players made it a night to remember for the Golden Gophers. Although decided underdogs, they played hard and smart in defeating Ohio State, 70-65, in the Big Ten Conference game. Those five played all but 57 seconds.
The makeshift Gophers drew cheers when they came out to shoot informally an hour before the game. When the starting lineups were announced, they got such a standing ovation that "it sent chills up my spine," said forward Tim Hanson, making his first start.
"It was really an emotional experience. They're normally so laid back. They wanted us to win so badly, we had to play hard," he said.
Hanson had 10 points and freshman guard Ray Gaffney scored 12 points in the second half to finish with 17. They made enough long jumpers to complement center John Shasky, who had 19 points. In addition, the Gophers' sagging 2-3 zone accomplished its goals of keeping Ohio State from getting inside shots easily and keeping the pace from making attrition a factor.
"I feel wonderful," said Jimmy Williams, who was named interim coach when Jim Dutcher resigned after the team's top three forwards were arrested on sexual assault charges a week ago, and university president Kenneth Keller decided to forfeit Minnesota's next game.
Then, Wednesday, on the eve of the game, two more players were suspended for violating unspecified team rules.
Dutcher didn't attend this game. But Keller did, and he entered the locker room afterward, shaking hands and slapping backs.
"Some people we believed in went out there, without the players we felt shouldn't be playing," Keller said outside the locker room door. "They went out there, hung together and made the university proud. Winning and losing is not important. If they'd gone out and lost tonight, I'd have been just as proud."
Early on, the cheering occurred whenever anything positive happened for the Gophers: a violation against Ohio State on the opening tap; a Buckeye turnover; a defensive rebound by Kelvin Smith (whose two free throws with 49 seconds left assured the victory).
"In light of the events of the last five or six days," said Williams, an assistant here for 14 years, "this was one of the best wins I've been involved in here for 15 seasons."
"We had to come out and show everybody we were for real," said Smith. "It means a whole lot to Minnesota, not just the team. It was the biggest win since I've been here. Michigan was big, but this was bigger."
In the hallway, Jim Ramstad, a state senator and close friend of Williams, kept repeating: "Against all odds, against all odds. Unbelievable."
And Eldon Miller, the losing coach whose team was led by Brad Sellers' 22 points, had little to say about a game in which he was outcoached and his players outhustled. "It's hard for us to win when he have three assists and 18 turnovers," he said. "Hey, Minnesota beat us. They handled the ball better than we did."
Ninety minutes before game time scalpers found little market outside the old arena with one of the few remaining raised floors in basketball. "Want to buy a ticket to see the New Gophers?" said one seller as motorists passed a key intersection.
"Who's got one?" a prospective ticket buyer asked outside the doors.
"I do," a scalper replied.
"What do you want?"
"I'd like to get $9 (face value)."
"How about $5?"
"A lot of people are paying $5."
As it turned out, a ticket to see the New Gophers was a bargain at any price tonight.