Gophers defense lights out in second half

Southwest Minnesota State was held to shooting 14.3 percent in the second half.

Zach Eisendrath

Earlier this week, Minnesota men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith was asked if he was impressed that the Gophers held Minnesota State to 37 percent shooting in the team’s first exhibition game Nov. 1.

In a typical never-satisfied coach’s response, Smith said not really, because he thought his team could have held the Mavericks to 33 or 34 percent shooting.

Certainly, then, Smith couldn’t have been happy that Minnesota allowed Division II Southwest Minnesota State to shoot 51.9 percent in the first half of its final preseason tuneup Tuesday night at Williams Arena.

Smith, however, can be encouraged with how his team responded from its sluggish first-half performance – with a lights-out second half.

After allowing the visiting Mustangs to hang around for 20 minutes, the Gophers put together a near-perfect second half both offensively and defensively, outscoring Southwest Minnesota State 50-19 on their way to a 88-52 win in front of an announced crowd of 11,197.

“We picked up our defensive intensity in the second half and did a great job defending them, holding them to 14 percent in the second half, which is unbelievable,” Smith said. “That was a key to getting the game turned around.”

Even without leading scorer Lawrence McKenzie, who sat out after aggravating a groin injury earlier this week in practice, Minnesota had little trouble scoring, with four players finishing in double figures.

Freshman guard Al Nolen led Minnesota’s offensive attack, scoring 24 points on 6-of-6 shooting. Sophomore guard Lawrence Westbrook finished with 17 points. Senior big-men Spencer Tollackson and Dan Coleman added 16 a piece.

With McKenzie in dress clothes, the Gophers came out flat early, and despite 16 first-half points for senior center Spencer Tollackson, took only a five-point lead into the locker room after allowing five first-half three point shots.

“A few things that were said (in the locker room at half time) were that we had to start contesting shots, we gave up a lot of uncontested shots, and we had to defend their threes (better),” Tollackson said.

Minnesota made the proper defensive adjustments and reminded all in attendance and those watching across the Midwest on the Big Ten Network that there are two halves in a game of basketball.

A much more aggressive Gopher team showed up in the final 20 minutes of play, as Minnesota went on a 19-5 run to start the second half and held the Mustangs to just 14.3 percent shooting as its lead expanded by as many as 36 points.

“I think we were a little sluggish in the first half,” Westbrook said. “In the second half, coach got on us a little bit and we just picked up our intensity and we got a lot of deflections and steals and our defense led to offense. That was the difference.”