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Trevor Mbakwe throws down two of his 13 points with authority.

The Gophers faced a four-game losing streak to Michigan and were fresh off a season in which they seemingly had no answer on either offense or defense for the Wolverines, but on Saturday Minnesota used its supreme size advantage to dominate the boards and score down low to turn the tables and secure their first conference road win of the season, even with the loss of Al Nolen to injury in the first half, in a 69-64 victory in Ann Arbor.

Facing a Michign squad that features almost no inside presence, Minnesota relied heavily on its bigs and much of the offense was directed through Trevor Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson.  With 6’4″ “power forward” Zach Novak trying to hang with the Gopher big men, Minnesota went with a heavy dose of posting up and taking high-percentage shots.

The game plan worked, as the Gophers shot an impressive 63% while only attempting eight three pointers.  Maverick Ahanmisi, Chip Armelin and Blake Hoffarber were forced to pitch in on point guard duties in the absence of Nolen who left the game in the first half with an apparent ankle injury.  Without their floor general and a leader on both offense and defense, it wasn’t clear how the team would respond.

It was clunky at first and Minnesota took a slim 31-29 lead into the half.  The start of the second half, though, saw the team extend their advantage to nine points before Michigan turned it around and took a one-point lead of their own.  Without their senior leader, the Gophers looked like they might give away a winnable game.  The team, though, buckled down, retook the lead and executed down the stretch to secure the victory.

Sickeningly enough, however, the Gophers reverted back to their incompetence at the free-throw line, hitting only 13 of their 23 attempts, good for 56%.  Though it hasn’t happened yet, Minnesota likely will run into a time where their faulty free-throw shooting will bite them down the stretch and cause them to lose a game.  They had seemingly overcome their early-season woes over the past few games, but several misses last night showed that they are still incredibly inconsistent at the stripe.

Michigan, as expected, shot almost exclusively from the three-point line.  It’s easy to see how dangerous they can be when they are hot as those three-pointers can rack up points in a hurry.  The Wolverines attempted 35 three-pointers, though they only made 12 of those attempts.  It’s hard to determine whether or not they were cold from the arc or if the Gophers forced them into bad shots, but it appeared to be the former.  Michigan had open looks the entire game and actually missed quite a few uncontested attempts.  Tim Hardaway Jr. ended up leading all scorers with 20 points, but even he was 4-10 from behind the arc, missing several open looks.  Based on the three-point defense the Gophers have ran with all season, it’s almost lucky that Michigan didn’t exploit the openness a bit more.

Last year, as you’ll recall, Michigan stymied the Gophers with its 1-3-1 zone on defense and the crazy-good performances by Manny Harris and Deshawn Sims, shutting Minnesota down in both meetings and leaving fans scratching their heads.  It was losses against teams like Michigan that kept last year’s squad in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and painted them as a middling team.

This season, however, the hope has been that the Gophers will lock it down against inferior teams and give themselves the best chance to move up in the standings.  Minnesota’s only bad loss so far this season was against Virginia and fans were interested to see how they’d respond on the road against a team everyone knew they should beat.  The Gophers had played tough against harder opponents on the road earlier in the season, but if they want to seriously content at the top of the conference, it’s games like this that they need to win.  The same goes for the upcoming game against Northwestern, which is a game they should win but also a game they could easily end up dropping.  The fact that the team was able to get it done on the road against a team like Michigan is reassuring.

Who did what:

  • Al Nolen exited the game due to an injured foot in the first half after playing only 11 minutes.  Though it’s unclear how serious the injury is at this point, the fact that it’s the same foot as the one he injured earlier in the season is concerning.  It’s been reported as a sprained ankle at this point but the story will likely clear up soon.  Nolen’s importance to the team can’t be overstated; he is the leader on both offense and defense and keeps things moving on both ends.  Since the Gophers don’t have much depth in the point guard position we can only hope that him sitting out for the rest of game was mostly precautionary and that a little rest will heal him up.
  • Trevor Mbakwe again came off the bench and was largely held in check for the first half but ended up with 13 points on 5-7 shooting and eight rebounds.  There wasn’t a single player on Michigan that could match up with Mbakwe and he found himself guarding, and being guarded by Zach Novak more often than not.  He was forced to stretch his defense to the perimeter to hang with the Wolverines at the three-point line but never found himself exposed.  The fact that there were so many three-point attempts limited his rebounding chances as well, as there were plenty of long bounces off missed shots that didn’t come his way.  Though he committed five turnovers, Mbakwe had an all around solid night.
  • Ralph Sampson III scored in double figures for the second straight game and pulled down seven rebounds to boot.  As one of the three big men who got a lot of attention on offense, it was nice to see Sampson rise up to the challenge and put some points on the board.  He had a significant size advantage in the paint and his touch was working for most of the night, even allowing him to hit a couple jump shots.
  • Blake Hoffarber found himself left with part of the point guard responsibilities after Nolen went down and did an admirable job filling in on short notice.  Hoffarber is an underrated passer to begin with and, though he’s not quick, his court vision is impressive and allows him to getting away with not being the fleetest of foot.  Several times he had quick outlet passes off of a Michigan miss that contributed to points on the other end.  Though he only ended up attempting two three-pointers, Hoffarber ended up with 12 points thanks to nice drives and smooth floaters.  He added six assists and, perhaps more impressively, didn’t turn the ball over a single time.
  • Rodney Williams had an ugly airball on a three-point attempt in the first half but didn’t seem to let that affect his confidence, hitting two timely threes later in the game to maintain the Gopher lead and stop a couple Michigan runs.  Williams filled up the box score with 10 points, four assists and four rebounds, but he did turn the ball over three times.  Though we shouldn’t expect Williams to hit threes consistently, it would be nice to have him confident enough to take the shots when he is wide open.  On the season he is only 4-26 from beyond the arc and teams really don’t respect his shot at this point.  With his ability to drive the baseline, forcing a defender to be up in his face and respect his shot could provide him opportunities to get the hoop a little easier.  Williams with an improved shot could be very dangerous.
  • Colton Iverson had one of his better games of the season, scoring nine points and pulling down nine rebounds.  Even better, his found his touch near the hoop hitting a few smooth turnarounds on the block and going 4-5 from the field.  Touch hasn’t been a big part of Iverson’s game recently, so it was nice to see him get things going in the paint.  Having Iverson as a legitimate weapon on offense will provide size mismatches throughout the season if he can prove he should be on the court for more than 15 minutes.
  • Chip Armelin racked up the most playing time of his career and had a small audition for future point guard duties in light of the Nolen injury.  It’s been hard to gauge how talented Armelin is this season considering that we haven’t seen him in extended playing time against tough competition.  However, last night provided a glimpse into what Armelin is all about and is capable of doing.  You can see a bit of Vince Grier in him in that he seems to knock down seemingly impossible shots on awkward drives and plays a bit out of control, which is understandable considering he’s a freshman.  Armelin looked good for the most part, piling up seven points but still appeared to be rough around the edges and made a couple regrettable mental mistakes.  Again, that’s to be expected this early in his career, so hopefully a little more experience will help him clean up his game.
  • Mav Ahanmisi had a solid performance in 13 minutes, scoring five points and hitting a couple open shots.  Because he gets limited playing time, Ahanmisi can make the most impact by hitting shots that the defense gives him.  So far this season he’s shown that he can hit the open shot when given the opportunity, a trait that makes him a solid fill-in player when someone like Nolen needs a breather.  Against Michigan, Ahanmisi hit an open jumper and a wide-open three-pointer.  He’s not going/able to create his own shot yet, but contributing by making shots that are given to him is a good start.

Photo courtesy of Carlos Osorio, Associated Press