The fans loved the team, they loved Musselman and they especially loved the Gophers' fancy pregame Globetrotters' warmup routines. By January, when the Big Ten part of the schedule opened, the team was ready. Minnesota knocked off four straight foes, while Ohio State had three conference wins heading into last week's showdown.
The tension and emotion began to build early. When the Buckeyes came on the floor, they were booed. Then came the Gophers with their Barnum & Bailey act. While their ball handling, passing and dribbling tricks—all done to the loud, steady beat of heavy rock music played over the P.A. system—are entertaining, they also are designed to hype up the team and the crowd. Musselman says, "It motivates my players."
In retrospect, that seems an understatement. By the end of the warmups, and long before the start of the game, the Gophers and the 17,775 fans were motivated to the point of frenzy. Later, after Musselman's "disciplined" team had come unglued, Ohio State Athletic Director J. Edward Weaver pointed to the warmups as the underlying cause of the riot.
As a whole, the game was rough and nerve-racking, but also cleanly played and well-officiated. The only incident of any sort before the slaughter came when the teams were going to their dressing rooms at halftime. As Nix passed in front of Witte, his left arm raised in a clenched-fist salute, the Buckeye center tried to shove the fist out of his way with an elbow and in the attempt clipped Nix lightly on the jaw. Later, Musselman claimed that was the incident that incited his players. "Our kids were really upset at halftime," he said.
With 11:41 remaining in the final period, Minnesota took a 32-30 lead on a jump shot by Taylor, replacing Behagen who had fouled out two minutes earlier. But then Ohio State scored 10 straight points to go in front 40-32. Try as they might, the Gophers could never get any closer than five points. As defeat became more and more apparent, the crowd began to turn ugly. At one point, the officials stopped the game because of various debris—peanut sacks, peanuts, pennies, Coke cups—that was splattering the floor. When it was announced that any more throwing would result in a technical foul against Minnesota, there were boos—and more debris. Still, the players seemed under control.
Then it happened. With the Buckeyes ahead 50-44, Witte was driving in for what promised to be an easy layup. Instead, Minnesota's Turner cut in front of Witte and clobbered him. Almost instantaneously Taylor got Witte with a sweeping overhand right hook on the ear. The crowd cheered, then booed when it was Turner who was called for a flagrant foul and ejected from the game. As Witte rolled over and slowly got up on all fours, Taylor walked up and extended his right hand in what seemed to be a gentlemanly gesture. But when Witte was almost to his feet, Taylor abruptly pulled him forward and drove his right knee into Witte's groin. The big center crashed back to the floor. Then the arena erupted in a swirl of flying fists. Later Taylor claimed, through Musselman, that Witte triggered the incident by spitting at him. But an inspection of slow-motion films does not reveal the spitting.
"I wouldn't have done it in the first place," said Witte. "And even if I wanted to, I couldn't have because I was down too low."
When Ohio State Guard Dave Merchant moved in on a retreating Taylor, Jim Brewer hit Merchant with a combination of punches and then, along with Turner, chased him down the sideline. Meanwhile, Behagen rushed from his seat on the bench to where Witte was lying helpless and viciously stomped the Ohio State player's neck and face.
Fred Taylor pulled off Behagen who, according to Taylor, screamed, "Let me go, man, let me go." Dave Winfield, who recently joined the Gopher varsity, joined the fray, too, dodging to mid-court where some Minnesota reserves and civilians were trying to wrestle Ohio State substitute Mark Wagar to the floor. Winfield leaped on top of Wagar when he was down and hit him five times with his right fist on the face and head. When the stunned Wagar managed to slip away, a fan pushed him to the floor and another caught him on the chin with a hard punch from the side.
As the riot increased in tempo, with fans now flooding the playing area, only one cop was anywhere to be seen. By the time others arrived and began pulling people apart, the damage was done. Witte and Wagar lay near each other, so dazed that neither could remember anything when questioned later. "I went blank after I was hit with the knee," said Witte. "The next thing I knew, I was in the emergency room at the hospital." Wagar got up and helped Witte off the court but does not recall doing it.