Williams is solid once more for Minn.

Two weeks ago, a casual Minnesota basketball fan might not have known that junior center Jonathon Williams was on the team.

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what: Men’s basketball
when: 8 p.m., Wednesday
where: West Lafayette, Ind.

After outwardly proclaiming his goal during preseason play to lead the Big Ten in rebounding in 2008, Williams’ words were not backed up when the season unrolled and he averaged only 2.5 per game coming into Sunday’s game with Penn State.

But against the Nittany Lions on Sunday, Williams played only 14 minutes but had five rebounds and tied a season-high with eight points by way of two booming dunks, a put-back and even a soft-touched mid-range jumper on 4-of-5 shooting.

“When we get that kind of production out of him, that makes us a better team,” Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said about Williams’ performance.

The 6-foot-9, 285-pound St. Cloud native clocked in 20 minutes in the first game of the season against Army, but only grabbed one rebound. During the following three months, Williams put in no more than 17 minutes and five rebounds in a single game.

But since the Gophers Feb. 16th game at Wisconsin, in which the junior hauled in eight rebounds in 21 minutes of play, Williams has found himself back in Minnesota’s regular rotation.

On a team with a lack of interior depth, Williams’ presence and physicality down low has given the Gophers a boost and allowed senior posts Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson the ability to get valuable rest during the stretch run of the 2008 season.

“What would we do without him?” Smith said in response to a question about Williams’ contributions to the team. “When he goes to the basket like he did today, he’s a force.”

Penn State’s hot first half

One thing that has plagued the Gophers all season is that they often have been unable to pull out victories after slow starts.

It did not look good for Minnesota on Sunday when the Nittany Lions stormed out of the gates by shooting 64 percent from the field and 67 percent from beyond the arc in the first half.

Penn State’s hot shooting early on produced the Nittany Lions largest lead of the afternoon at 31-18 as junior Danny Morrissey’s three-point make with less than seven minutes remaining in the first half quieted the crowd in Williams Arena.

“Offensively, we were playing pretty well in the first half. We were clicking,” Penn State head coach Ed DeChellis said. “Morrissey made a couple big shots for us.”

Morrissey would go on to hit two more threes in the second half to go 4-of-5 on the afternoon, but the Nittany Lions – as a team – shot only 18 percent from beyond the arc to finish the game.

Westbrook steps up

Although he is listed at just six feet tall, sophomore guard Lawrence Westbrook often plays like he has at least another eight inches.

Westbrook is one of the Gophers most premier slashers, often seen taking the ball to the hoop for tough lay-ups or nifty dishes to Minnesota’s post players.

“He’s as tough a player as we have,” Smith said of Westbrook. “He’s giving away at least four to six inches on his defenders. But he doesn’t back down.”

The Chandler, Ariz., native nearly doubled his average point total of 7.8 on Sunday while filling out the stat sheet in other categories as well, finishing with 15 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals.

More importantly, Westbrook went 6-of-6 from the free-throw line for the Gophers against Penn State, sealing the deal at the end of the game while Minnesota shot a measly 57 percent as a team on the afternoon.

“Being a Division I guard, you have to make your free throws,” Westbrook said.