Well, that wasn’t how we wanted the Gophers to play, was it? With a slightly better defensive performance and a shaky at best offensive game, the Golden Gophers hung on to beat the Big Red 71-66.
It is easy to panic, get discouraged, or become confused about where this team has been and where it is going. However, as my wife wisely pointed out just after the final horn, all that matters in March is that this was a win, as odd and at times infuriating as it was.
The biggest concern entering Saturday’s game was Minnesota’s perimeter defense. Despite Cornell making 14-33 three-pointers (yes, they really did attempt 33 three-pointers) the Gophers did a much better job communicating and fighting through screens to get out to the three-point line. Cornell didn’t seem to mind though, and instead took a few steps back behind three-point line and knocked down shot after shot. The good folks at CBS Sports put together a shot chart after each game, and as you can clearly see, Cornell made plenty of shots they didn’t have much business attempting. At some point you just have to congratulate the other team. If they can stay in a game knocking down 25 footers, good for them. While the Big Red made 8-17 three-pointers in the first half, the Gophers held them to a more respectable 6-16 in the second half.
Free-throw shooting was the other major concern following the loss to Virginia, and yikes was it bad again, at least for a half. Minnesota kept Cornell in the game shooting 3-12 from the not so free-throw line, but managed to shoot 26-44 (yes, they attempted 44 free-throws) which isn’t entirely embarrassing. After that slow start, they actually shot 71% from the line.
In a lot of ways, Saturday’s game was just strange, and I am glad it is over. I would caution against looking too much into it. Cornell’s three-point shooting and the Gophers’ free-throw shooting was plenty anomalous, even for the Gophers that struggle to defend the three and can’t seem to concentrate when shooting free-throws.
If there is one big take-away from the Cornell game that we all may want to remember, it is that Tubby Smith trusts his freshmen, maybe even more than the starters. After another uninspiring three-quarters of a game by the more talented players on the roster, Tubby Smith pulled the starters in favor of Mo Walker, Colton Iverson, Chip Armelin, Austin Hollins, and Maverick Ahanmisi. They promptly led the Gophers on a 9-0 run, with Chip Armelin playing a significant role in 8 of those points.
The NCAA selection committee won’t care that the Gophers had only a five point win when they hand out tournament berths in a few months. A loss would have been disastrous, but this win was the 7th in 8 games, and hopefully a learning experience for everyone involved.
Who did what:
- Austin Hollins took only one shot, but it was a big one, hitting a three-pointer when the Gophers were reeling in the first half. He continued to show that he is a smart player, above all else, with three assists, three steals, and no turnovers.
- Trevor Mbakwe may have had the strangest double-double in NCAA history, with 12 points, 16 rebounds, and 0-4 field goal shooting. He was clearly frustrated with the hack-a-Trevor defense that Cornell employed. If he can shoot a little better than the 60% free-throw shooting that he managed against Cornell, teams will be forced to defend instead of foul.
- Ralph Sampson bounced back after a rough game against Virginia with 13 points and 6 rebounds. He joined several Gophers with poor free-throw shooting making only 3-7. He finished off the game for the Gophers with an emphatic break-away dunk. It is always nice to see a big guy rewarded for the running the floor.
- Blake Hoffarber had another solid floor game with 13 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists with only 1 turnover. His point total should have been much higher, with several misses on wide-open shots that would have proven to be momentum swinging moments.
- Maverick Ahanmisi knows not to do too much. He needs to play solid defense, and get the ball to a teammate before he messes something up. That led to 2 points, 4 assists, 1 steal, and no turnovers.
- Rodney Williams had the dunk of his Gopher career and had the best single minute of his Gopher career with back to back three-point plays. Unfortunately, he didn’t impact the other 39 minutes of the game. Baby steps.
- Colton Iverson didn’t do a whole lot, but was on the court during that crucial 9-0 run. He had 5 points and 4 rebounds.
- Devoe Joseph continues to struggle since returning from his suspension, which is understandable since this is only his second game of the season. His defense was better, but his offense was worse, and he still can’t find a way to get the ball to teammates when they are in position to score. He had only two assists in 25 minutes (Hollins had his three in 18 minutes and Maverick’s 4 were in 15 minutes). He also made a pull-up three-pointer when Cornell forgot to guard him while he brought the ball up the court (come-on Ivy Leaguers, be smart) and made a 10 foot jumper from the side off an inbounds pass from the exact same spot that he missed the would-be game winner against Purdue last year.
- Maurice Walker is making a case for more playing time. He provided a huge spark against Virginia, and did the same against Cornell. In only 11 minutes he had 6 points and three rebounds. He has shown that he has a soft touch around the rim, and is too big for anyone to defend properly. His conditioning may prevent him from playing more than short spurts, but I wouldn’t mind seeing more than one of those spurts each half.
- Chip Armelin single-handedly righted the Gopher ship during the 9-0 Gopher run. He started things off with an athletic three-point play. Followed it up with a gorgeous assist to Maurice Walker for a lay-up, stole the ball the next time down the court, which eventually led to another Walker lay-in, and knocked in a three-pointer right after that. For those scoring at home, that was 6 points, a steal, and an assist in just over two minutes.