Gophers overcome big first-half deficit to drop Siena

Minnesota trailed by as many as 11, but outplayed the Saints in the second half.

Gophers overcome big first-half deficit to drop Siena

Josh Katzenstein

Before the 2010-11 season began, Minnesota menâÄôs basketball coach Tubby Smith said he hoped his team could handle a schedule that started with two games against teams that made the NCAA tournament last season. With a 76-69 win over Siena at Williams Arena on Monday night, the Gophers (2-0) proved they can beat tough opponents, but that doesnâÄôt mean itâÄôll be easy. After looking sluggish on both sides of the ball for much of the first half, Minnesota controlled the game in the second half and hit clutch free throws in the final minute âÄî despite making just 19-of-30 in the game âÄî to drop the Saints to 0-2. Siena, a No. 13 seed in last seasonâÄôs NCAA tournament, came out on fire and led by as many as 11 points early in the game. Senior guard Clarence Jackson scored 18 points in the first half and finished with a career-high 29, exposing a glaring weakness in the Gophers perimeter defense. âÄúThey were very capable of blowing us out,âÄù said junior forward Trevor Mbakwe, who finished with 10 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. Despite allowing the Saints to shoot 51 percent from the field, MinnesotaâÄôs defense was key in the comeback victory. The Gophers forced 24 turnovers, including 15 in the second half. Senior guard Al Nolen led the team with six steals. âÄúOur identity is on defense, and we werenâÄôt getting any stops,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄúWe were scoring, but it starts on the defensive end.âÄù As for the Saints, head coach Mitch Buonaguro felt his team couldâÄôve won if not for such poor play from the point guards. Siena had just 12 assists to counter those 24 turnovers. âÄúIt wasnâÄôt anything Minnesota did. We just couldnâÄôt pass the ball,âÄù Buonaguro said. âÄúIt was our turnovers that lost the game.âÄù The Gophers shot just 43.9 percent from the field and went 7-for-22 from behind the arc. Senior guard Blake Hoffarber led the Gophers with 16 points and seven assists, but shot just 4-of-13 from the field. Minnesota struggled to execute its offensive game plan, which was to go inside to take advantage of their size. SienaâÄôs tallest player is just 6-feet-9-inches while the Gophers have three players at 6-feet-10-inches or taller. âÄúI thought we didnâÄôt take the ball to the basket strong,âÄù Smith said. âÄúEven though we scored well, weâÄôre not really taking advantage of our [size].âÄù TuesdayâÄôs game was much tougher for the Gophers than it shouldâÄôve been in part because Mbakwe said some players were thinking about the upcoming trip to Puerto Rico. Smith hopes two early tests will pay dividends when the team go to San Juan for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, which begins Thursday against Western Kentucky. âÄúBy Thursday, weâÄôve got to improve by about 50 percent,âÄù Smith said. âÄúWeâÄôve got to do a lot of work because I just caught a couple clips of Western, and theyâÄôre a very talented team.âÄù Notes -Mbakwe and Austin Hollins started in place of Colton Iverson and Rodney Williams. Smith said Iverson and Williams violated team rules, but both players will travel to San Juan. -Hoffarber was playing through a recently twisted ankle, Smith said. His 36 minutes played were the most on the team. -Hollins scored 12 points in his first career start.