After a jovial locker room celebration with players Wednesday night, coach Ben Johnson didn't hesitate to call the comeback vs. Nebraska, the most important win of his Gophers tenure.
There are several layers to that statement.
The Gophers men's basketball team (6-3, 1-1 Big Ten) beating the Cornhuskers at home might not seem like a major achievement. After all, Nebraska placed higher than 11th in the Big Ten just twice in the past decade. The Gophers finished at least that high four times under Richard Pitino, whom Johnson replaced in 2021.
The win was significant because the Gophers overcame losing their leading scorer, Dawson Garcia, to an ankle injury. They also battled back after trailing by 15 points at halftime. They were 1-19 last season and 0-2 this season when trailing after 20 minutes.
"We're far from a finished product," Johnson said. "But we can get so much better, it's scary. I'm happy about this because this is something they can fall back on. And it shows that they can win and can pull through. They're tougher than they think."
What else made Wednesday's Nebraska victory so meaningful? Perception is everything. It muted Johnson's critics for a night after earlier U losses to Missouri, San Francisco and Ohio State.
"I know what the narrative is if we're playing bad," Johnson said, referring to chatter that Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle might have to make another coaching change.
"Mark is awesome. He gets it. I know I have his confidence 100%," Johnson said. "More importantly, I know I have confidence in my staff and in our players and in our program and in what we're doing. It's just a matter of time before it really starts showing up. If we can remain healthy, I'm excited about this group."
Staying healthy has always been a challenge for the Gophers since Johnson arrived. The Gophers lost both veteran forwards Isaiah Ihnen and Parker Fox to season-ending knee injuries two years in a row. Fox and Ihnen are back now and contributing, but other players have been banged up.
Garcia, who missed five games with an injured ankle last season, will miss Saturday's game against Florida Gulf Coast. It's also uncertain what his timetable will be to fully recover or get back to playing at an all-league level.
Earlier this season, Pharrel Payne dealt with a foot injury, but his minutes restriction was lifted recently. Fans questioned why Payne hadn't been in the starting lineup in the last eight games, but the sophomore big man played 35 minutes on Wednesday with Garcia sidelined.
"Sometimes, to the outside world, it might look weird," Johnson said. "'Why is he doing this or why is he doing that?' But you have to know the pulse of each player. What you have to do to get the best out of them and to build their confidence."
In another coaching move Wednesday, Johnson benched starting forward Joshua Ola-Joseph in the first half because he wasn't rebounding. Ola-Joseph responded to have 13 of his team-high 15 points and all five of his boards coming on the offensive end, all in the second half.
"When he came in and got those boards, they were big plays and lifted the momentum," sophomore Braeden Carrington said. "He just came in and was a difference maker."
Progress is still hard to measure with Johnson's Gophers, who are coming off back-to-back years finishing at the bottom of the Big Ten. But they're ahead of last year, when they opened Big Ten play with an 0-4 record.
The Gophers had to wait until mid-January at Ohio State to win their first Big Ten game. And their first Big Ten home win didn't come until early March over Rutgers.
Almost a year later, Johnson's players already know what it feels like to win at home in the Big Ten in December — and that's the Gophers' biggest achievement yet this year.
"It feels great to get one early," Carrington said. "It's an even bigger win to know that when Dawson goes down, we have players who can step up and really just keep the team going."