Three-point shooting lifts Gophers to win

Zach Eisendrath

Lawrence McKenzie made sure the Minnesota men’s basketball team didn’t lose yet another conference home game.

The senior guard scored a career-high 26 points to help the Gophers overcome a five-point second-half deficit and beat Michigan 69-60 at Williams Arena on Thursday night.

Minnesota was entrenched in a back-and-forth game against the Wolverines – one that featured 15 lead changes and six ties – with less than eight minutes remaining.

Then McKenzie made his way to the scorer’s table and checked back into the game.

The Minneapolis native made his presence felt quickly; hitting back-to-back three-pointers – the first a fade-away with the shot clock set to expire – to put the Gophers up 61-54.

McKenzie, who connected on a career-high seven three’s, added a late layup and as Minnesota held Michigan scoreless over a 5:22 stretch, the Gophers put the game on ice.

“Lawrence McKenzie is obviously a gamer,” coach Tubby Smith said. “He really stepped up.”

“It tells you about his heart and his courage and how hungry he is to win and how he can handle pressure.”

McKenzie credited his strong performance to his increased time in the gym.

“I took my preparation to another level. I only have two classes left until I graduate, so I don’t want to be sitting around the house all day,” he said.

The Gophers (16-9 overall, 6-7 Big Ten) had made a habit of getting off to slow starts at “The Barn” during the conference season, but put an end to that trend Thursday.

McKenzie hit three three-pointers and Lawrence Westbrook added a fourth to start the game as Minnesota jumped out to a 15-5 lead five minutes in.

That lead didn’t last long, though.

Michigan grabbed 11 offensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes of play and took advantage of 10 Minnesota turnovers to take a 35-34 halftime lead, despite shooting 35.6 percent from the field.

The Wolverines extended their lead to five six minutes into the second half after a tip in basket by sophomore forward Ekpe Udoh made it 49-44.

But Minnesota, as Michigan did in the first half, quickly closed the gap with its defensive intensity.

And with nine minutes remaining, junior center Jon Williams caught a lob pass from freshman shooting guard Blake Hoffarber and flushed it home to give Minnesota its first lead of the second half at 53-52.

A few minutes later McKenzie took over to seal it for the maroon and gold.

“Lawrence is a capable scorer. When he gets going he is one of those tough guys to stop,” Williams said.

With momentum in their back pocket, the Gophers will attempt to move back to .500 in the Big Ten when they host Penn State at 1 p.m. on Sunday at Williams Arena.

“I thought our kids did a good job of keeping their composure (Thursday), not panicking, handling the pressure and recognizing that we can still attain the goals we set this year,” Smith said.