Two semi-notable things happened in the hours leading up to Minnesota’s just a little closer than it should have been win at Michigan last night. Tubby Smith hinted at line-up changes, and the always confusing Lawrence McKenzie vowed to live up to his big game potential (we can only assume he meant when the game hadn’t been decided) “I’m going to come out very confident. Hopefully, it can be contagious.”
Both happened, but not quite in a way that was expected.
The rumored and long anticipated line-up shake-up was more of a shake-down. Instead of benching starters and giving more responsibilities to their back-ups, Tubby Smith significantly shortened his bench. With the Gopher hockey team reeling through a very disappointing season, getting away from anything than could resemble a line change was a good idea. Damian Johnson started, filling in for Jamal Abu-Shamala, and provided the much needed spark that the Gophers had been lacking in previous games. Instead of finding themselves down 19-3 as they did against Ohio State last Saturday, Minnesota came out hot and energized and were more or less able to put the game away in the first several minutes. Every starter except Lawrence McKenzie played a key role in the Gophers game opening 11-2 run. Lawrence Westbrook scored 9 in the first half, and more importantly shut down Michigan’s Manny Harris. Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson both forcefully attacked the basket, and Damian Johnson added more highlight reel dunks to his surprising season. McKenzie’s confidence must have rubbed off on his team mates in the first half, but in the second half he kept it to himself.
In a performance that has unfortunately previously only been associated with garbage time, Lawrence McKenzie took over with the game still on the line. He scored all 18 of his points in the second half, 9 on three pointers including one from well outside of the three point line and another with a taller defender in his face as the shot clock expired. It was the type of game he will need to have when Bucky comes to town on Sunday.
As a team, the Gophers exorcised their shooting demons and should have regained some of their confidence. Minnesota made almost 60% of their shots from the field, and while their free throw shooting is still far from acceptable, Spencer Tollackson made 2 of the 3 he attempted. Minnesota also won the battle of the boards, and dominated on the inside despite the more athletic Michigan front line.
The next few days will be filled with rampant speculation about the fate of the Gopher line-up. Where is Blake? Can the Gophers compete against Wisconsin with a short bench? Are these changes temporary? I won’t pretend to have the answers, but at least it is February and people still care about the Gopher basketball team.
Who did what?
- Dan Coleman led the Gophers in minutes played, rebounding, had a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds, and distributed his impact evenly through out the game. Its about time.
- Damian Johnson did what he always does: make the open shot and cause hell on defense. He scored 8 points, and though he only accounted for 2 rebounds, a steal, and an assist, as usual he impacted the game in ways that statistics just can’t appreciate.
- Spencer Tollackson scored 14 and had 4 rebounds. Proving that he can be in the right place at the right time and do the right thing, he collected 5 steals, many the result of deflections from his team mates.
- Lawrence McKenzie could really help his team by showing up in both halves, but its hard to complain when he takes over a game on the road in a must win situation.
- For the second game in a row, Lawrence Westbrook turned in his best performance as a Gopher. His 15 points and 4 rebounds were nice, but his defense was even better. I’m not sure how Down with Goldy came up with his numbers, but Westbrook apparently held Manny Harris to two points, both of which were free throws. Al Nolen and Westbrook could be the best defensive back court in the Big Ten the next few years.
- Al Nolen played 13 minutes, the most of any non-starter, but was still a non-factor.
- Travis Busch played 6 energetic minutes. Any one else notice that his elbow pad/brace gets bigger every game?
- Jonathan Williams played 4 minutes, and did just about nothing.
- Blake Hoffarber played two minutes, and somehow managed to squeeze in a turnover.
- Jamal Abu-Shamala filled what would be his ideal role; a role player that can give the starts a breather and knock down a couple open shots. He did this in the first half, and finished the game with 5 points and a steal.
- Ryan Saunders may have attended the game.
- Devoe Joseph did attend the game, and spent at least a few minutes with the 100 or so Gopher fans that trekked to the game and made the only noise that wasn’t from a band, a ball bouncing, or an obnoxious announcer.
- Tubby Smith won his 400th game.