After snipping the final nylon strands, Minnesota coach Clem Haskins jubilantly twirled the basketball net over his head.
The circle was complete.
Symbolically and actually.
A little more than a year after being snubbed for the NCAA Tournament, his Golden Gophers rallied to beat UCLA 80-72 in Saturday's Midwest Regional championship game at the Alamodome to advance to the Final Four for the first time in the program's 101 years.
"I was on a high," Haskins said. "I was on top of the world. But we have not accomplished our goals yet. We're 80 minutes away from that."
UCLA first-year coach Steve Lavin, teary-eyed, then crying during his post-game news conference, praised the Gophers and his team for possessing the hearts of champions.
"We've learned a lot more than just going to the final eight and lot more than just making jump shots," said Lavin, who replaced Jim Harrick two weeks before the season opener.
"With what we've overcome in terms of adversity and hurdles it's a long way from the 48-point massacre at Stanford. It's a long way from being 3-3 and out of the Top 25 and basically an NIT bubble team."
In fact, it was the Bruins (24-8) who looked as if they were 80 minutes from a title and not the top-seeded Gophers, the champions of the Big Ten.
Although Minnesota started point guard Eric Harris, who injured his right shoulder in the double-overtime win over Clemson on Thursday, he was ineffective in the first half.
But the No. 2-seeded Bruins were forced to do without a key starter themselves for much of the half _ center Jelani McCoy, who aggravated a bruised chest. But they led 33-28 at the half and pulled ahead by as many as 10 points early in the second half.
Even without McCoy, UCLA led 48-39 on a driving one-hander by forward Charles O'Bannon with 13:42 left.
But then the Golden Gophers, as they have done all season with the exception of Thursday, turned to their entire roster for help.
"This is the way we play basketball. This is the real Minnesota basketball team," said Haskins, whose Golden Gophers were carried over Clemson by a combined 67 points from guard Bobby Jackson and forward Sam Jacobson.
Enter forward Quincy Lewis for Jacobson against UCLA.
"My role on this team is to come in and be aggressive on the offensive end and the defensive end," Lewis said. "We came out and weren't aggressive, so the second unit came out and gave an emotional lift to the team."
Lewis scored on a finger roll, hit a pair of free throws when he was fouled on a drive by forward Kris Johnson, hit another layup and a follow-up dunk in a dazzling 10-2 run that brought Minnesota to within 50-49 and the throng of Minnesota fans among the 31,930 to its feet.
It also brought McCoy to his. He asked Lavin to let him try to play and perhaps stop all of the shots.
"But I couldn't do much," McCoy said. "I couldn't breathe. I was in a lot of pain."
Lewis drew another foul, and the man who missed two crucial free throws that allowed Clemson to force overtime, swished two to give the Gophers a 51-50 lead with 9:38 left.
The Bruins, who don't have much depth and looked fatigued, hung tough and tied the score at 57 on guard Toby Bailey's tap-in with 5:11 left. But the Gophers continued a merciless attack inside.
They would outscore UCLA 51-36 in the paint.
"They took advantage of 'Lani being out and us being even thinner then we already were, and really pounded the ball inside on us," point guard Cameron Dollar said.
"I knew exactly what they were going to try to do. It's written all over the chalkboard," Lavin said. "But when you don't have your 6-10 center in the game, it makes it hard."
Forward Courtney James hit a free throw after grabbing an offensive rebound, Jacobson followed his own miss with a tap-in, then he hit a short jumper as Minnesota began to pull away.
Jackson, named the regional MVP, focused more on distributing the ball and hounding Dollar into six turnovers and poor shooting on this day. But after two Bailey free throws, he scored on a driving layup, and Charles Thomas followed with a fastbreak layup for a 66-59 lead with 2:35 left.
"We wore them down tonight," Jackson said. "Our skills and our determination paid off. (Dollar is) a great player, but he tried to do to much. We just keyed off the mistakes they made."
Although UCLA closed within 66-64 with 1:57 to go, Jackson, Lewis and Charles Thomas sealed the win by combining for 10 of 12 shooting from the line and a fastbreak layup. In all, five Gophers broke double figures, led by Jackson's 18 points.
"I think they got caught up in trying to stop me and Sam, and didn't pay attention to these two guys to my left," Jackson said of Lewis and Charles Thomas.
"It's a dream come true. Whoever thought Minnesota would be in the Final Four?"