Everyone knew which player would get the ball, and everyone knew he would shoot at the first opportunity. No one could stop the shots, or the ball from hitting nothing but the bottom of the net. No, I’m not talking about Talor Battle, who did have quite the game. Instead it was Lawrence Westbrook that took over with a career high 29 points to lead the Gophers to a 75-70 victory over Penn State.
Minnesota’s victory is important for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it was a hard fought and closely contended game. The Gophers knew going in they could run their opponents out of Williams Arena. Before the game they did not know that they could withstand a furious second half come back and regain their composure, the lead, and the victory. Now they do, and they will face late game situations with more confidence.
Minnesota played well in enough in stretches and had the talent to win by double figures, but Penn State played their best game of the season and made 9-18 three pointers, enough to more than make up for their 16 turnovers. As expected, Talor Battle led the way for Penn State with 23 points on 14 shots during 40 minutes of playing time. It was a great effort, but just not quite enough to keep the Gophers out of the win column.
In the early going it looked like the Gophers were going to make short work of Penn State. The two teams played evenly until the first TV timeout, during which Tubby Smith replaced his entire starting line-up. This substitution has more to do with Smith’s unshakable strategy that it does with anything happening on the court, but it made the coach look like a genius. Every member of the second line scored and the Gophers jumped from an 8-7 lead to a 19-10 lead.
Despite the excellent play of the reserves, the starters came back and immediately began to squander the lead. Damian Johnson fouled Chris Babb while he was attempting a three pointer, his second silly foul of the game (the first was a charge during the first possession) and was forced to sit until halftime. Babb made all three free throws. On Minnesota’s next possession Al Nolen attempted a contested three pointer beyond his range, and Talor Battle raced down to knock in his own three pointer. The 11 point lead was suddenly down to five. Penn State would later cut the lead to three on a David Jackson three pointer, but back to back baskets by Justin Cobbs and Westbrook just before the first half buzzer sent the Gophers into the half with a comfortable seven point lead.
That lead was short lived. The Gophers came out flat in the second half with poor defense and seemingly no direction on offense. Smith felt compelled to pull the starters once again. This time the reserves did not respond to their earlier than usual playing time, especially on defense. Penn State pounded the ball inside and made their first seven field goal attempts of the second half. What was a seven point lead became a five point deficit after a steal by Talor Battle and a David Jackson lay-up. Minnesota’s only points while the reserves were on the court came on a Devoe Joseph tip-in. Tubby had finally seen enough by the 14 minute mark and in came the starters.
The impromptu benching worked wonders. On their first trip down the court Blake Hoffarber hit a three pointer in transition right in front of the Gopher bench to cut Penn State’s lead to two. Bill Edwards hit a jumper for Penn State to push their lead to four, but Lawrence Westbrook responded with a three pointer to cut the lead to one. Edwards hit another jump-shot, Hoffarber another three, and the game was tied at 48 as quickly as Minnesota’s lead was lost. The Gophers briefly lost the lead again, but after back to back baskets by Westbrook they held a 58-56 advantage and did not tie or trail again. Minnesota led 72-64 with 41 seconds left, but some characteristically poor free throw shooting and a few meaningless late three pointers brought the final score to 75-70.
Minnesota played their best offensive game against a quality opponent (classified as Butler, Portland, Texas A&M, and Miami) scoring .1 point more per possession than their previous best against Butler. The majority of these points came through the half court offense as the Gophers managed to score 23 points in transition. Several baskets came off of forced turnovers, but this wasn’t last season’s Cornell game. Lawrence Westbrook was especially successful catching the ball near the free throw line after curling off a screen and either driving to the basket or knocking down 15 foot jump shots. The offense was lackluster in the first half however. The Gophers settled for far too many contested three pointers early in the shot clock, making only 2-10 in the first half. Westbrook, who couldn’t miss, and Hoffarber, who is still brimming with confidence, helped the Gophers make 6-12 three points in the second half. The only real concern on offense is the absence of any player over 6’4” making a real impact while the Gophers had the ball. Penn State is an undersized team, but the Gophers couldn’t get the ball inside in a position to score. Damian Johnson, Colton Iverson, and Ralph Sampson III combined for 14 points.
Penn State played primarily man to man, and it appears that Westbrook and Hoffarber’s hot shooting were enough to intimidate the Nittany Lions out of playing the zone. The all reserve line-up faced the zone during a few possessions, and looked awful, but the mere presence of Hoffarber on the court brought back the man to man.
The Gophers came into last night’s game touted as one of the best defensive teams in the country. They may in fact be one of the best defensive teams in the country, but no defense can adequately prepare for an opponent that can’t seem to miss. Strategically, the Gophers had the right idea of switching off of most screens, and several times it worked, but not in the second half. The wrong players switched at the wrong time. In no circumstance should Colton Iverson end up guarding Talor Battle and Lawrence Westbrook shouldn’t be lost amongst the trees under the basket. Guards should switch with guards, forwards with forwards, etc. Damian Johnson and possibly Paul Carter are the only Gophers that can defend all five positions with at least some possibility of avoiding embarrassment. The alternative of not switching would have been much worse, with little likelihood of fighting through screens fast enough to keep up with the deceptively speedy Battle.
A new and semi-regular feature during the Big Ten season will be plus/minus numbers courtesy of the Big Ten Network’s Big Ten Geeks,yes, geeky statistics provided by self-proclaimed geeks, straight forward enough. The plus/minus concept is pretty simple, the team’s scoring margin while each player is on the court. Not surprisingly, the starters led the way, especially with Lawrence Westbrook on the court.
- Damian Johnson had a rough night, despite what you might find in the box score. He picked up two quick fouls resulting in only six first half minutes. He missed a dunk, a lay-up, and a wide open jumper, and took horrible angles on two attempted rebounds where he looked silly. Luckily he scored four points down the stretch that sealed the game. For the Gophers to work their way back to the tournament, they will need consistency from the senior captain.
- Ralph Sampson couldn’t find a way to get involved in the offense, attempting only a 10 footer from the corner and a tip-in off a missed Blake Hoffarber three pointer. He also missed two crucial free throws in the second half. In his defense, he was cramping up during most of the later stages of the game. Someone needs to eat a bannana or two. On defense he was better with four blocks and two steals.
- Al Nolen played just well enough for the Gophers to win dishing out six assists to go with five rebounds and two steals. He slipped into the Al Nolen of last year far too often, attacking the rim with out a plan and tossing the ball in the general direction of the basket hoping something good would happen. It didn’t. Nolen needs to finish at the rim and take jumpers when he is wide-open. Offensive flailing isn’t going to work.
- Lawrence Westbrook had the best game of his career, including both Wisconsin games last season. He scored 29 points on only 16 shots. Eight hours of meditative preparation make anything possible.
- Blake Hoffarber didn’t have a game that could compare with his last several, but his three pointers all came at the right time, especially the two in the second half that really swung the game’s momentum. He finished second on the team with 11 points. Impressively, he led the team with 30 minutes of playing time and didn’t commit a single turnover.
- Paul Carter hit an open three point but missed an alley-oop off a gorgeous pass from Justin Cobbs.
- Justin Cobbs likely would have taken Al Nolen’s place in the starting line-up if Nolen wasn’t putting up career best numbers. The freshman point guard gained a lot of confidence from his coach with 6 points in 16 minutes, and in the process ate into Devoe Joseph’s playing time. Cobbs brings a bit of a Westbrookian flair to the team when he is on the floor as evidenced by his coast to coast lay-in off a rebound and break in which he used Colton Iverson as a blocking back a beat everyone down the floor.
- Devoe Joseph missed all three of this three point attempts, which landed him on the bench. He finished with four points.
- Rodney Williams is back in the rotation, but not for long if he keeps jacking up 21 footers. He looks for lob passes far too often on offense and is struggling to find openings in the defense.
- Colton Iverson needs to remember what he did in California and replicate it. Any pass into Iverson is a potential turnover. If he catches the ball and if he takes a moment to steady himself, he can be a very good player. Lately he has been rushing the catch and any shot that might follow.