Four days after playing their most complete game of the still young season season, the Gophers were bound to have a bit of a let down, and did they every. Playing their worst half of basketball in almost two years, heavily favored Minnesota trailed by 12 points to Cornell. However, they used a 25-2 second half run to turn what could have been a trap game into another impressive blowout.
Nothing seemed to go right in the first half. The Gophers were a step slow on both ends of the court. Their shooting wasn’t bad. They made 43.5% of their first half shots; nothing great but nothing out of the ordinary. The problem was that they couldn’t get shots off without first turning the ball over. Ten first half turnovers led to 10 Cornell points. Cornell didn’t need the extra possessions either. Ryan Wittman, whose father really should be out of a job by now, positively torched the Gophers, especially from behind the three point line where he made four of seven. Minnesota’s defense, which has specialized in forcing turnovers since Tubby Smith arrived, only forced three turnovers the entire half. Despite the lack of turnovers and none-too-special offense, the Gophers were within one point with 6:45 left in the half, then the wheels that had gradually been loosening all day completely fell off.
After a win over the ACC on national TV with a crowd gone mad, a let down was all but guaranteed. It is only human after a win like that to not be fired up and ready to take on a school from the Ivy League that are also heavy underdogs. The Gophers sleep walked through much of the first half, didn’t get the crowd into the game, and had been playing like they should have been down much more. Suddenly they were. During the rest of half Travis Busch made a mid-range jumper and two free throws while Lawrence Westbrook made another free throw. During that span Minnesota also turn the ball over four times and missed four field goal attempts. Cornell did just the opposite as Ryan Wittman scored 11 points during the last seven minutes of the half. A Gopher team that had thrived on easy baskets off of turnovers had no points off turnovers and no fast break points in the first half was flailing for a life line and in danger of drowning.
The first four minutes of the first half featured both teams exchanging baskets. The Gopher looked a little better, but as soon as they did Blake Hoffarber landed awkwardly fighting for an offensive rebound and had to leave the game. His injury initially looked as bad as Paul Carter’s, with Hoffarber being carried off the court, unable to put any weight on his ankle. Fortunately, after about 10 minutes he was able to hobble up the stairs back to the bench, and spent the rest of the game icing his ankle. I wouldn’t be surprised if he misses a game or two, but it was certainly a good sign that he was not whisked away in an ambulance for x-rays. Like Carter’s injury though, it lit a fire under his team.
The Gophers scored the first 13 points after Hoffarber’s injury. This would eventually grow into a 25-2 run that would become a 38-8 drubbing over the final 16 minutes of the game. As always, defense sparked the rally. Ryan Wittman that had so torched the Gophers in the first half was all but shut down in the second half, making only one field goal and turning the ball over twice. Damian Johnson blocked a three pointer. Ralph Sampson III made a soaring interception at half court and kinda, sorta led the fast break and Al Nolen added a few steals as well. The Williams Arena crowd, having remembered how make some noise against Virginia, remembered on Saturday how to make the building shake. With each steal, deflection, and dive for a loose ball the crowd grew louder and louder, once again to the point where a Gophers opponent was so rattled that consistently getting the ball across half court became a challenge.
Perhaps because their confidence was so rattled, or they were just exhausted after finally getting the ball across mid-court, Cornell’s shooting took a major nose-dive in the second half. They made five field goals and shot 19.2% in the second half, and did not make a single three pointer over the final twenty minutes. Aided by more than their fair share of easy baskets, the Gopher offense erupted for 43 second half points including multiple thunderous dunks from the emotionless one, Ralph Sampson III. He may not make any facial expressions, but the way he played made up for it.
The Gophers confirmed once again that they are a defensive explosion waiting to happen, and because of it can never be counted out. Even if their offense had struggled in the second half, they likely would have been able to come back since they only gave 14 points after half time. Saturday’s win was not balanced, and far from a completely dominating performance, but the final 20 minutes did more to the team’s fans and their imaginations than anything so far this season.
Who did what?
- Jamal Abu-Shamala got plenty of chances on Saturday, but each time he seemed to get torched on defense. I don’t have any statitistcs to show it, but I think the majority of Wittman’s points came when Abu-Shamala should have been in the general vicinity.
- Damian Johnson again did just about everything, again. He sparked the Gophers big second half rally with a three pointer as the shot clock expired, did everything on defense, and had 4 more assists (part of his game that I did not anticipate but am thrilled about). The only complaint is his troubling free-throw shooting. He missed all four of his attempts and has dropped his season percentage 37.5%. I know your hand is wrapped Damian, but seriously…
- Colton Iverson struggled mightily with fouls most of the day playing only 12 minutes. He did make two of two free throws and pulled down 5 rebounds. The foul trouble isn’t encouraging, but the game was bizarrely officiated and seems to be more of an anomaly than part of a trend.
- Al Nolen also struggled with fouls, one of which he breathed, coughed, sneezed, comitted an Orwellian thought crime, or maybe glared a little too hard. He did manage seven points and four assists and three turnovers, and two steals before he fouled out.
- Blake Hoffarber made two three pointers before his ankle injury.
- Kevin Payton got his minute.
- Travis Busch played his role perfectly. He took only three shots, all of which were wide open, and he made them all. He also secured five hustle rebounds and was flying after loose balls all day long.
- Devoe Joseph’s offensive numbers aren’t eye popping. He scored eight points six points and had two assists and two turnovers. What the numbers don’t show is how under control he played. The freshman guard who had been all motor and no brakes made smart decisions, didn’t force anything, and was a steadying presence as he played his most minutes of the season.
- Jonathan Williams eased his way into the season with three rebounds in seven minutes.
- Lawrence Westbrook continues to excel off the bench. He led the team in scoring again with 17, made five of nine field goals including three of five three pointers. Especially encouraging was his team leading five assists and only turnovers. Somehow he also had a block. The guy is 5’11” on a tall day.
- Devron Bostick had two rebounds and two turnovers. For that he received a generous 10 minutes of playing time.
- Ralph Sampson had ten points, six rebounds including three offensive, and two steals. The guy is 6’11” on a short day. He isn’t the most expressive sort, but neither was Greg Oden, Tim Duncan, or Ralph Sampson Jr.