Gophers break into top 25 after win over Buckeyes

Minnesota hadn’t posted an AP Top 25 rank since 2013.

Gophers guard Amir Coffey handles the ball during Minnesota's game against Southern Illinois at Williams Arena on Nov. 26, 2016. The Gophers won 57-45.

Maddy Fox

Gophers guard Amir Coffey handles the ball during Minnesota’s game against Southern Illinois at Williams Arena on Nov. 26, 2016. The Gophers won 57-45.

Jack White

The new year has been good to the Gophers so far.

Minnesota (15-2, 3-1 Big Ten) earned its third consecutive win of 2017 with a 78-68 victory over Ohio State (10-6, 0-3 Big Ten) on Jan. 8 at Williams Arena.

“We obviously did not have a good year [in 2016],” said head coach Richard Pitino. “We obviously had some issues off the court. We took ownership from them and we got better from it. We didn’t point fingers.”

The Buckeyes came as close as three points away from Minnesota, but the Gophers pulled away by hitting nine of their last 12 free throws.

“We were up 18, came out ready to go, I did think they’d come back,” Pitino said. “I thought our guys were pretty engaged and locked in.”

Guard Amir Coffey led the team in scoring with 19 points. He also had five assists and four rebounds.

Coffey dunked the ball with both hands late in the second half and was fouled in the process. He sprung off the rim and yelled to the crowd. The score helped Minnesota take a 62-55 lead in the game.

“Amir Coffey does not celebrate,” Springs said. “When you see that, he was more than excited.”

Guard Akeem Springs was close behind Coffey in points with 18 off the bench, including five 3-pointers.

Springs made as many 3-pointers as the entire Ohio State roster. The Buckeyes struggled behind the arc with just a 5-14 performance.

“[Springs] hit big threes obviously but he also got five assists and one turnover,” Pitino said. “He’s fearless, he’s tough.”

Minnesota nearly lost a halftime lead when the team gave up six unanswered points on five shots early in the second half. The Gophers had two turnovers and a miss during the run.

The team bounced back, however, with lots of help from Coffey.

The freshman was fouled with 35.4 seconds to go in the game as the Williams Arena crowd stood with applause. Coffey made it a 13-point game at the line thanks to two made free throws.

Guard Nate Mason managed to get 12 points by only going 2-12 from the field.

“I am proud of these guys,” Pitino said. “To do it with Nate Mason not playing offensively his best game.”

Minnesota’s starting five besides Coffey went a combined 11-37.

Center Reggie Lynch scored 10 points on 4-5 shooting. He was also able to play 25 minutes. Lynch fouled out with 4:01 to go in the game.

Forward Jae’Sean Tate led the Buckeyes in scoring with 20 points. Forward Trevor Thompson added a double-double for Ohio State with 15 points and 15 boards.

The Gophers were out-rebounded by the Buckeyes 45-39 in the game.

“We kind of narrowed that [rebounding] gap at the beginning,” Pitino said. “That’s still something we need to get better at.”

The Gophers started the game on a strong 16-3 run. Coffey had seven points during that stretch.

Minnesota’s 3-1 record puts the team at a four-way tie for first place in the Big Ten.

The Gophers received more votes for the top-25 than any other unranked team when the Associated Press did a polling on Jan. 2.

In the Jan. 9 poll, Minnesota cracked the top 25 for the first time since 2013 with a No. 24 rank.

“[A top-25 rank] would mean a lot,” Coffey said. ”Coach tries to tell us you know ‘stay level-headed, stay away from that … “It would show us our hard work is paying off.”