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Minnesota appeared to have no answer against the quick-hitting Siena Saints offense through much of the first half, but was able to turn the tables down the stretch to take home a thrilling 76-69 victory to improve to 2-0.

Stymied by basket after basket from Siena’s Clarence Jackson, who scored a game high 29 points, the Gophers quickly found themselves down by 11 to a suddenly confident Saints team, who are no strangers to playing big-time programs tough.  While keeping Saints star Ryan Rossiter in check, Minnesota fell victim to back-door cuts and, quite simply, hot shooting in the first half.

That’s not to say the Gophers were playing poorly.  Aside from horrific free throw shooting, going into halftime down by only one point seemed like a victory of sorts considering how potent the Saints offense was proving itself to be.  There seemed to be a feeling that the Gophers were waiting out uncharacteristically awesome play by Siena, and that by holding serve, their home-court advantage and athletic advantage would pay dividends.

This came to fruition in the second half.  Despite falling down by six to start off the second stanza, Minnesota’s athletic advantage began to show through and the maturity gap between the two teams was evident.  Siena starting committing turnovers in droves, leading to fast break points for the Gophers and the frenzied home-court advantage that was lacking in the first half.

The Gophers barely looked back.

Behind a defense that forced 24 turnovers, Trevor Mbakwe bullied people down low, while Austin Hollins and Blake Hoffarber took care of business from the field.  No single player ran away with a stellar performance, but the team fed off each other down the stretch when it counted.  The stretch run was exemplified by a Hoffarber to Rodney Williams alley-oop that put an exclamation point on the turning of the tides in the game.  The Gophers held off a comeback attempt by Siena in the final few minutes to take home their second victory of the season.

Siena is the second quality mid-major team that the Gophers have faced in as many games.  With two of the MAAC’s best players in Rossiter and Jackson, Minnesota was far from a sure bet to win the game.  Even with rookie coach Mitch Buonaguro pacing the sidelines, the Saints were expected to bring quality basketball to The Barn and did not disappoint.  Expected to once again contend for the MAAC championship, Siena will likely again be in the bubble conversation with another successful conference season.

The Gophers head to sunny Puerto Rico to face Western Kentucky on Thursday at 6:30pm CT in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Tournament.

Who did what:

  • Austin Hollins – Making his first start of the year at small forward, Hollins hit three-pointers at critical points in the game to keep the Gophers close and even take a lead.  Not only that, the freshman showed the ability to get to the hoop and get to the free throw line.  While borderline out of control at times, Hollins looked to be a legitimate threat on the court and a player who could see significant playing time with Devoe Joseph on the bench. Hollins scored 12 points in 20 minutes.
  • Al Nolen – Nolen did what Nolen does, creating havoc on the defensive end and dishing out the ball.  Nolen grabbed six steals and dropped six dimes while scoring seven points, committing only two turnovers.  What won’t necessarily show up in the box score was his ability to get past the first layer of defense and get the ball to guys near the basket.  The offense was a different animal with Nolen on the bench, with unsure passing and sluggish ball movement.
  • Colton Iverson played only 16 minutes, scoring six points and pulling down five rebounds.  Iverson is sure to see his minutes diminish with Mbakwe on the roster, and probably for good reason.  Mbakwe is just a more ferocious, coordinated player and has the athletic ability that Iverson lacks.
  • Trevor Mbakwe notched a double-double, scoring 10 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.  Mbakwe showed his ability to carve out a lane and get to the hoop as well.  What can’t be understated, however, is the sheer tenacity that he brings to the court.  A guy that big who can jump that high just makes you excited, and the crowd responded when he threw down huge dunks during the game.  Siena had no athletic equivalent for Mbakwe, and it showed in the rebounding battle.
  • Blake Hoffarber led the team with 16 points, but only shot 4-13, including 4-11 from beyond the arc.  However, Hoffarber handled the point when Nolen went to the bench, and dished out seven assists while pulling down six boards.  Arguably the most complete player on the team, Hoffarber often makes up for his “off” shooting nights in other facets of the game, much like tonight.
  • Ralph Sampson III had a quiet 13 points and six rebounds in 27 minutes.
  • Rodney Williams had eight points in a surprising 20 minutes off the bench.  It’ll be interesting to see how the Williams/Hollins minutes and starts are divided up with Joseph suspended.  Williams had a couple questionable shots in his time on the court, but more than made up for it with a put-back dunk and alley-oop when the team was in the midst of its comeback.
  • Chip Armelin played 12 intense minutes in the first half, but didn’t see much, if any, time in the second.  He scored four points and definitely brought an emotional element to the court when he was playing.

Photo courtesy of Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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