While you were eating turkey, loading up on stuffing and sneaking that last slice of delectable jellied cranberry sauce, the Gophers were frantically trying to hold off the worst of the Big East, the DePaul Blue Demons, in a thrilling opening round of the Old Spice Classic. Facing a 43-33 halftime deficit, the Gophers crawled back to take the lead midway through the second half before finally finishing off DePaul in the final seconds and taking an 86-85 victory back to their Orlando hotel.
But, boy, was this a tough victory against a seemingly inferior opponent that hasn’t had a whiff of success in the past four years of playing major college basketball. The Gophers did basically all they could to ensure the leads they happened onto would not stay around for long in the first half and well into the second. Mental mistakes, the name of the game for the Golden Gophers of late, plagued the squad throughout the game and nearly resulted in a laughable upset. Missed free throws and key turnovers hit the Gophers hard, including a nearly-devastating throwaway by Julian Welch with just over a minute left, giving the Blue Demons the ball and a chance to take the lead. After a huge charging call on DePaul star Cleveland Melvin, Welch subsequently missed two free throws before being bailed out by Rodney Williams on a massive offensive rebound/putback to cap off an 18-point night and send Minnesota away happy.
Yes, the Gophers walked away with the victory which, in the end, is all that matters. And they deserve major kudos for battling back from being down by as many as 12 points and not rolling over (something we were all too familiar with last year). College basketball is a weird game, and we all know that any team can beat another on any given night. Was DePaul just playing out of it’s mind? Maybe. But it’s hard not to see major red flags that continue to reassert themselves – namely pathetic free-throw shooting and turnovers at exactly the wrong times.
The Gophers very well could have lost this game based solely on free-throw shooting. The Blue Demons put them on the line six times in the final 5:37 where the Gophers went a cool 2-6 and three of the misses came with leads of two or less – circumstances where a made free throw is of utmost importance. There are few excuses for missing free throws at clutch times, especially when you’re trying to hold on to a slim, slim lead. Minnesota left 10 points on the court by going just 17-27 (good for a mind-numbing 63%). Even making just half of those misses puts this game out of reach much earlier for the Gophers.
Turnovers weren’t as big of a problem as they had been in past games, but 17 is still too many to be comfortable with, especially against a team like DePaul and coming off such a smooth game against Mount St. Mary’s. Playing DePaul is much different than facing the Mount, of course, but DePaul is a middling major program and isn’t particularly equipped to force the Gophers into as many mistakes they committed. To be fair, the Gophers only committed one turnover in the final 13 minutes, which was key to their comeback. But the sheer amount of turnovers before that served to only shoot them in the foot and prevent them from establishing control of a game they should have been controlling all along. In the final half of the second half there was no doubt that the Gophers were the superior team, and all they had to do was lean on DePaul until they folded. But that opportunity almost never came due to their own incompetence before that. To put it succinctly, the Gophers are lucky they were playing someone like DePaul, because conference play certainly will not be kind to performances like this (unless we’re facing Iowa, of course)
But enough negative talk. The Gophers won, right? Rodney Williams was a beast, putting up 18 points and doing more than just dunking with authority on put-backs. In fact, Williams probably had the play of the game in his bailout of Julian Welch in the final minute, locking in the three-point lead and subsequent victory. Trevor Mbakwe had standard (by his measures) 16 points and 12 rebounds while Austin Hollins and Julian Welch joined the double-figures club with 11 points each.
Again, kudos to the Gophers for showing some backbone and establishing control against a team they should, and did, beat. This DePaul team certainly has some players in Melvin and Brandon Young (who led all scorers with 25) and likely won’t be finishing in the Big East cellar. However, it’s clear that Minnesota has plenty to work on before conference play begins if they want to hang around in games against much more fundamentally-sound squads.