It wasn’t pretty, reassuring, fun or smooth, but Minnesota’s win over the Big Ten bottom-dwelling Indiana Hoosiers was certainly exciting.  Coming into the game on an 0-2 conference skid, the Gophers looked to secure their first conference win and provide some ammo against folks who had already packed up and went home for the season.  Hoping to cruise to their first victory, Minnesota was instead riddled with inconsistent half-court play and an inability to dominate the overmatched Hoosiers, nearly throwing the game away in the final minutes before locking down a 67-63 victory.

Reeling from the recent departure of offensive weapon Devoe Joseph, many were curious to see how the team would respond and who would fill the vacuum of arguably one of the most talented players on the team.  Minnesota came out gunning, with Trevor Mbakwe scoring seven of the team’s first nine points.  Quickly, though, it became apparent that Indiana was not going to go away quietly.  They hung with the Gophers for most of the first half before torching the team with a 19-6 run to take a 32-26 lead into halftime and leave Minnesota fans scratching their heads and fearing the worst.

The second half was a bit of a different story, though.  Minnesota bore down on defense, utilizing the full-court press at times to force Indiana into disarray and mistakes.  The Gophers capitalized on Indiana’s giveaways and missed shots and regained the lead, which was punctuated by Rodney Williams’ SportsCenter-worthy dunk to give Minnesota a 59-51 lead with just over five minutes left.

While they appeared to be running away with the game, Minnesota ended up going down to the wire with the Hoosiers in light of missed free throws down the stretch, missed opportunities and a couple timely three pointers by Indiana.  In fact, Indiana cut the lead down to just two with seven seconds left after trailing 64-57 with only 24 seconds remaining and nearly stole the ball away on the ensuing inbounds pass for a chance to tie or even win the game.  For the first time all season, the Gophers nearly shot themselves in the foot by missing free throws in crunch time.

It’s hard to be critical of a team that actually won a game, and this circumstance is no different.  The Gophers won, period.  It wasn’t pretty, but how many wins in the Big Ten ever are?  Heck, even Ohio State, the number two team in the land had trouble icing Iowa last night.

However, there were aspects of the game that showed that the team could use some work.  The half-court offense was atrocious at times and, as we’ve seen in the past couple seasons, that type of play can get the the team in trouble for long stretches.  Indiana was able to take advantage of one of those stretches during their 19-3 run that closed out the first half.  The Gophers play much better in transition, and when they are stymied in the half-court set, things can often get ugly.  Minnesota ran a lot more in the second half and was able to basically run Indiana out the gym when they were.  After the Hoosiers were able to slow things down, however, scoring got a little tougher.

The team also nearly killed itself on missed free throws in which they shot 18-28 for 64%.  A handful of those misses came down the stretch with both Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber bricking important attempts that would have iced the game.

In the end, though, I think the focus should be on how the team rallied under pressure and got it done against an inferior opponent and not the fact they didn’t blowout that opponent at home.  The Gophers weren’t overly careless with the ball and only turned the ball over 11 times and hit their open shots for the most part.  What they’ll need to improve, however, is getting the open shots and not forcing the offense.  Too often they found themselves having to chuck contested attempts with the shot clock winding down, giving Indiana the ensuing possession.  This time, at least, their defense was able to pick them up and secure the win.

Who did what:

  • Trevor Mbakwe was an animal.  He notched his ninth double-double of the season with 11 points and 16 rebounds and swatted five blocks.  Indiana had absolutely no answer for Mbakwe down low and he basically did whatever he wanted when the Hoosiers came into the paint on offense and defense.  That said, he didn’t convert on as many offensive chances as we was given, shooting only 4-12 from the field.  Mbakwe had no trouble getting to the hoop, but did have trouble converting baskets.  On the plus side, Mbakwe was never in foul trouble, collecting only three fouls in 34 minutes.
  • Ralph Sampson was atrocious.  Against an extremely small team, it wasn’t crazy to expect Sampson to have his way both on offense and defense.  However, Sampson got off only four shots and made only one of them, ending the night with four points and only three rebounds.  Granted, he was a factor on defense down low and was instrumental in creating havoc for Indiana when they drove the lane, but when Sampson had the ball on offense it was impossible to predict what would happen.  Even when he was mismatched against a guy six inches shorter than him, Sampson routinely would have difficulty getting to the basket.  His performances have gotten to the point of being inexplicable.
  • Rodney Williams had an electrifying second half, and his performance and composure were reassuring after a very so-so opening to conference play.  Williams had 12 points on 6-10 shooting, including an impressive slam when Minnesota was building it’s lead late in the second half.  It was good to see Williams have a productive game, especially considering his recent performances.  The Gophers desperately need Williams to be an offensive factor in order to be successful, but he also needs to stay in control while doing so.
  • It might be hard to accurately give Al Nolen credit for his performance last night without understating just how important he was to the victory.  Nolen single-handedly helped the Gophers secure the victory in the second half though his defensive intensity as well as his offensive output.  You don’t often hear people raving about Nolen’s offense but against the Hoosiers he got the offense going by driving to the hoop and oftentimes connecting while doing so.  Several times, when it seemed like another Gopher possession was doomed to shot-clock expiration, Nolen would take the ball himself to the rack and get things moving.  On defense, his energy was contagious as the team responded to his full-court pressure and put Indiana on the ropes, since they had a hard time matching Minnesota’s intensity.  Nolen filled up the stat sheet with 14 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals – truly all-around performance.  Nolen is the key to this team this season, as he has a large hand in what happens on both sides of the court.  I’m fairly convinced he’s 100% healthy at this point, which is good news for the team as they continue the conference season.
  • Blake Hoffarber had an extremely quiet 16 points to lead the team in scoring.  Hoffarber hit 5-7 shots including two three-pointers to loosen up the Indiana defense.  Hoffarber’s biggest basket may have been a turnaround jumper as the shot clock expired late in the second half, maintaining the slim Minnesota lead.
  • Colton Iverson played only 12 minutes but was able to make the most of them, scoring four points and pulling down three rebounds.  Considering Sampson’s recent play, it might not be a crazy idea to try to get Iverson some more minutes to see what he can do with them.  At this point, Sampson doesn’t deserve to be playing as much as he does.
  • Mav Ahanmisi, who is expected to see his playing time increase with the departure of Devoe Joseph, had a productive 16 minutes in which he hit a pair of three pointers while grabbing three offensive rebounds.  His ability to play well in his limited time gave Tubby Smith an opportunity to rest Al Nolen and allow him to play for almost all of the second half.
  • Austin Hollins and Chip Armelin played a combined 18 minutes, going 0-5 together from the field.  Not a great showcase now that Joseph has left the program.

Photo courtesy of Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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