Gophers drop close contest to Michigan

Juniors Lawrence McKenzie and Dan Coleman each scored 18 points.

Zach Eisendrath

It’s starting to get a little ironic for the Minnesota men’s basketball team.

A team that couldn’t buy a basket and relied on a defensive identity to pull out wins most of the season has recently transformed into an offensive juggernaut that no longer defends for long stretches.

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This was the case in Wednesday’s loss to Iowa and was once again the theme in the Gophers’ 82-80 loss to Michigan Saturday night at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Just days after his team gave up 91 points to the Hawkeyes, Minnesota interim coach Jim Molinari made sure to point out how important defense is from the get-go.

He benched the Gophers’ top two scorers – junior guard Lawrence McKenzie and junior forward Dan Coleman – to start the game in Michigan, replacing them with freshman center Bryce Webster and sophomore guard Brandon Smith.

And for some time, the drastic changes brought forth solid production. McKenzie and Coleman both came off the bench without complaint, scoring a team-high 18 points apiece. But it didn’t matter that Minnesota (9-16 overall, 3-8 Big Ten), had a season-high five players score in double figures. Nor did it matter that the team shot 52.5 percent from the floor.

Once the Wolverines went to the rim, their superior athleticism was too much for the Gophers to handle. Michigan shot 35 free throws compared to Minnesota’s 12, a bulk of which came from the two players who caused constant headaches for the Gophers.

Wolverines senior guard Dion Harris’ ability to drive to the lane, combined with senior forward Brent Petway’s ability to sky over any and all Minnesota defenders allowed Michigan (17-8, 5-5) to come back from a nine-point halftime deficit.

“His offensive production carried us,” Wolverines coach Tommy Amaker said of Harris’ career-high 27 points. “We wouldn’t even be able to think about winning this basketball game if that young man didn’t have a tremendous basketball game.”

While it was Harris who kept Michigan in the game, it was Petway who clinched the game, scoring 16 of his career-high 18 points in a second half in which his team shot 73.7 percent from the floor.

“I did not really do anything differently,” Petway said. “My teammates found me and I was able to knock down a few shots that I don’t normally take. But that is just how it goes sometimes with this game.”

Molinari said he knew the Wolverines’ athleticism would be a problem, which is why he played speedy point guard Limar Wilson a team-high 35 minutes and even inserted sparingly used but athletic freshman forward Damian Johnson. But neither move changed the outcome.

“They just overpowered us inside and got us in foul trouble,” Molinari said. “We don’t have a lot of live bodies, athletes – that’s not our strength. So in reality, as the game goes on, they wear down.”

Still, nobody can accuse this group of Gophers of quitting. Minnesota still had a fighting chance until the final buzzer sounded against a Michigan team playing for an NCAA tournament berth.

The Gophers made it interesting in the waning moments, but without any timeouts remaining, redshirt freshman guard Kevin Payton was forced to throw a desperation heave from three-quarters court which fell short as time expired.

Losers of three straight, and with Wisconsin and Ohio State on the docket for this week, things aren’t likely to get easier for Minnesota. And although moral victories aren’t what Molinari is looking for, he said his team continues to make strides.

“I’m proud of them,” Molinari said. “I feel bad for them. They’re doing a lot of right things, on and off the court.

“That group, before they leave here, they’re going to bring back Minnesota respect – make them really respectable. I believe that in my heart.”