So much for that freshman wall. Led by the speed and defense of Al Nolen and a small line-up, the Gophers blew open a close game to beat Iowa 63-50.

Nolen, who recently had been spending more time on the bench than on the court, energized Minnesota in the second half by playing his typical outstanding defense and adding a much improved offensive game. During an 18-5 run that allowed the Gophers to expand a three point lead to the game ending 13 point win, the freshman point guard scored 6 points and pulled down 3 rebounds. Most importantly, he limited his turnovers that had been negating the impact of the turnovers he so often forces.

Saturday’s game felt like a blow out. Minnesota controlled the pace of the game, and on many occasions was unable to take a shot before they turned the ball over or the shot clock expired. The Gopher coaching staff must have stressed the importance of playing defense for a full 35 seconds. A week earlier against Wisconsin, Minnesota either got bored, lazy, or both after 30 seconds, and repeatedly gave up open shots to the Badgers. Saturday, during the final 5 seconds of the shot clock, the Gopher defense became even more intense, much to the delight of the Williams Arena crowd.

Even though Minnesota was in control, they couldn’t build a signficant lead. On several occasions they were up by nine points, but each time the lead hit 9, the Hawkeyes came roaring back, but not necessarily on their own accord. Once again, Spencer Tollackson struggled mightily against a larger center. Just as the Gophers have been able to beat bad teams and consistently are outplayed by losing teams, Tollackson is able to dominate against shorter players but looks absolutely against taller players. He repeatedly had shots blocked, was out of position on rebounds, and for whatever reason insisted on attempting bank shots that would make his geometry teacher shudder in disbelief. It wasn’t until Tollackson was benched after around the mid-point of the second half that the Gophers were finally able to pull away.

With Tollackson on the bench and Jonathan Williams out for the second straight game with one of the many viruses that afflict Minnesotans in the mid-winter, the Gophers went small. The line-up of Dan Coleman, Damian Johnson, Lawrence McKenzie, Blake Hoffarber, and the aforementioned Al Nolen was too much quickness for the Hawkeyes could handle. In something resembling Duke’s spread offense in the last several minutes, the Gophers spread the floor for Nolen and McKenzie, who were able to penetrate and score, drop off passes to Coleman and Johnson for easy dunks, or kick the ball out to Hoffarber who actually made a mid-range jump-shot.

Despite the smaller line-up, Minnesota did not suffer on the boards. Minnesota enjoyed a huge rebounding advantage for most of the game, and finished with 30 rebounds compared to 22 for the Hawkeyes. On the defensive end, Minnesota was outrebounded by only two even though they missed 10 more shots than the Hawkeyes. The Gophers have been repeatedly outrebounded on the offensive glass this season, but they only gave up two on Saturday while Damian Johnson pulled down 6 of his own.

As has become the norm for this years Gopher basketball team, even the wins leave a little to be desired. It was great to see Minnesota blow open a close game, but Iowa actually led in the second half even though Minnesota was up by 9 points in the half. Minnesota should have been able to put the game away, especially because Iowa only scored 6 points in the first 6 minutes of the second half. Against a better opponent, Minnesota could have easily seen their 9 point lead turn into a 9 point deficit.

Of course, last year Minnesota would not have been able to bounce back from losing a lead. Even more impressive was the fact that the Gophers put the game away with players who will be around for a while. Other than Tollackson, the Gopher upper classman were solid, but not spectacular, but it was the youngest Gophers that propelled their team to victory.

Who did what?

  • Jamal Abu-Shamala started, made an open 3 pointers, and demonstrated great hustle on the boards. He wouldn’t start for most Big Ten teams, but in his second straight start, he once again did more to help than hurt his team.
  • Dan Coleman could have had a monster game if his team mates could have found him. Especially in the early going, he was repeatedly wide open on the weak side of the court, no one within several feet of him, but the Gophers just could not give him the ball. When he did get the ball though, he was unstoppable. He finished with 10 points on 5-6 shooting. The Gopher guards will be kicking themselves when they see the game film.
  • Spencer Tollackson should keep starting, simply on the off chance that he will play well. But as has been the case all season, it is evident right away what kind of game he will have, and if he is having one of those days, he shouldn’t be anywhere close to the court. He finished with 11 points and 4 rebounds on 3-10 shooting. However, his free throw shooting is starting to become spectacular. Spencer shot 5-6 from the line, and his miss actually had a chance to go in.
  • Blake Hoffarber was solid if not spectacular. He had 8 points, 4 rebounds, and maybe the most bone headed turnover of the season. A 3/4 court bounce pass is rarely a good idea.
  • Lawrence Westbrook struggled with his shooting, and only played 16 minutes, mostly because Al Nolen was playing so well. Other than his shooting, he played a very good game, providing 4 assists, 2 rebounds, a steal, and an amazing block (that was probably goal tending) to swat away a break away lay-up.
  • Damian Johnson is unbelievable. The stats speak for themselves. Nine points, 7 rebounds (6 offensive), 2 assists, a block, and 2 steals.
  • Lawrence McKenzie’s decision to blow off a study session may have been the best thing to happen to the Gophers so far this season. The Gophers continue to play well when he isn’t starting, and McKenzie continues to play well coming off the bench. He scored 11 points (3-6 three pointers), had 3 assists, two rebounds, and a steal.
  • Jonathan Williams was out sick, but I am beginning to wonder if his lack of playing time has more to do with his stubborn insistance to shoot one handed shots than a head cold.
  • Travi s Busch didn’t play either.
  • Ryan Saunders now has a cheering section. I’d like to be able to take some credit for that.

Highlights from the Big Ten Network