After slow start, Gophers get defensive in win
DEC 01, 2012 2:50p ET
The Gophers' trip to the Bahamas and then Florida, while tropical, was certainly no vacation. On its four-game trip that included the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament, Minnesota faced four tough teams and beat three of them — losing only to No. 5 Duke. It was certainly an impressive trip for a program on the rise, but Tubby Smith's Gophers returned home perhaps a bit exhausted.
That's the way it looked early on, at least, as Minnesota hosted North Florida on Saturday in the Gophers' first home game at Williams Arena since Nov. 18. Despite a slow start, however, Minnesota eventually pulled away from visiting North Florida for an 87-59 win.
"It was real nice to be back home, get to play in front of our fans and our parents," said senior Rodney Williams, who had a team-high 14 points Saturday. "After a long road trip, it's always nice to come home and get a 'W.'"
Just like the Gophers' road trip, nothing came easy early on against the Ospreys. North Florida hit its first five shots and jumped out to an early 14-6 lead and led for a good 10 minutes in the first half. But Minnesota turned the tide with under eight minutes to play before halftime, capped by a thunderous putback dunk by Austin Hollins. The junior forward flushed home a missed Joe Coleman 3-pointer to tie the game at 21 and bring the Williams Arena crowd to its feet.
"That was pretty nasty," said Williams, who knows a thing or two about nasty dunks.
From that point on, the Gophers asserted themselves as a team deserving of a Top 25 ranking.
During their impressive road trip, the previously unranked Gophers earned the No. 21 ranking in the Associated Press poll. After Saturday's slow start, Minnesota played the way a ranked opponent should play against an unranked nonconference foe.
The Gophers used their size advantage to beat North Florida down low in the second half, tallying a season-high 13 blocks. Hollins had four of those, while redshirt senior Trevor Mbakwe had three in just 11 minutes.
Minnesota also had 15 steals and forced the Ospreys into 22 turnovers. Many of those turnovers translated into points the other way for the Gophers.
When it plays like that, Minnesota is hard to beat.
"You can tell by the difference in the first four minutes and the rest of the game, just blocking shots and getting steals," said Elliott Eliason, who had two blocks and three steals. "We were a lot tougher."
Defense has become a trademark of this year's Gophers team, and it was certainly evident Saturday. North Florida shot just 35.1 percent from the floor and 29.2 percent (7-for-24) from 3-point range. The 22 turnovers committed by the Ospreys tied the most the Gophers had forced all season.
"That's our DNA. We've got to hang out hat on our defense," Smith said. "We do a good job of challenging shots. … We forced them into a bunch of turnovers. Fifteen steals and 13 blocks, that's a pretty impressive defensive effort. We had a size advantage on them and it paid off."
Minnesota got a balanced scoring attack Saturday, as 10 different players scored. While Williams led with 14 points, Hollins had 12 and Joe Coleman and Mbakwe each had 11.
Everything else on the stat sheet had a similar balance. No one player took over Saturday, but the Gophers didn't need that. Certain players had their moments — Hollins' big dunk was part of a key first-half burst for him, while reserves like Mo Walker and Oto Osenieks contributed off the bench in the second half.
Saturday's game against North Florida didn't yield the same level of competition the Gophers faced in the Bahamas or during their 77-68 win at Florida State. The Ospreys' three wins coming into this game were against Edward Waters, Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M.
Back from the long road trip, this was the type of game the Gophers needed. Things will only get tougher from here on out as Minnesota has just four non-conference games remaining before starting Big Ten play on Dec. 31.
If the Gophers continue to play like they did Saturday, they could keep climbing up the rankings before the conference season starts.
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