Gophers lose to Division II national champion Warriors

Zach Eisendrath

There are season-ruining losses and there are program-changing wins. One of these options was accomplished Wednesday night.

Minnesota men’s basketball team fell victim to one of those program-changing wins when it was upset by Division II national champion Winona Sate 69-64 at Williams Arena on Wednesday.

Whether the loss ruins the Gophers’ season is to be decided. All things considered, it was still an exhibition game.

However, Minnesota’s final regular season tune-up felt like anything but an exhibition game, or a home game, for that matter.

The Warriors sold 650 tickets to the game in under two hours, but clearly there were more fans packed in the upper-deck of Williams – stealing the home-court advantage from the Gophers as well as the game.

Junior center Spencer Tollackson, who only played 19 minutes due to foul trouble, took the responsibility of the loss on his shoulders.

“I’m ashamed. I’m embarrassed,” he said. “We let ourselves down, our coaches down, our families down – and, more importantly, we let Minnesota basketball fans down.”

Coach Dan Monson said his biggest concern coming into the season was not being physical enough and it showed in the loss.

Winona State had the size and muscle to compete with the Gophers inside.

“We aren’t physical enough right now,” Monson said. “I thought they really were tougher than we were rebounding the basketball, finishing around the basket, getting to the free throw line Ö the things that you need to do to have success.”

Minnesota started off hot from three-point range – despite being without its top three-point shooter, sophomore guard Jamal Abu-Shamala, who was held out of the game with a minor, undisclosed injury.

Junior guard Lawrence McKenzie hit back-to-back three-pointers to start the game. But the Warriors, out of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, responded with back-to-back threes of their own to even the score.

Then, after trailing 11-5 following the first timeout of the game, Winona State went on a 12-4 run to take its first lead, 17-15, midway through the first half.

The Warriors defense then held the Gophers scoreless for final 6:51 of the half to take a 30-27 halftime lead.

Winona State coach Mike Leaf said he was realistic entering the game and just wanted to make a good showing against the third straight Division I team on his preseason slate.

“To be really honest Ö we just wanted to make a game of it,” he said.

Coming out of the locker room, the Warriors came out playing with the same amount of confidence and tenacity they had in the first half.

Winona State junior forward John Smith received most of the attention from the Gophers coming into the game and, after a quiet first half, he poured in 10 points in the second half.

Trailing 45-41, junior forward Dan Coleman led Minnesota on a 7-0 run, capped off with a three-point play to put Minnesota up 48-45.

But the Warriors wouldn’t go away. After tying the game, senior guard Zach Malvik drove to the hole as the shot clock expired to give the Warriors back the lead with 8:26 left to play – it was a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

“I’m glad it was an exhibition game, obviously,” Monson said. “It can’t be a negative. We’ve got to understand we are 0-0 and we have an opportunity to learn from that and move on.”

Gophers sign two

Prior to game time, Minnesota signed a pair players to national letters of intent – Blake Hoffarber and Al Nolen.

Hoffarber, a 6-foot 4-inch guard, has been the leading on scorer on Hopkins High School’s back-to-back Class AAAA state championship teams.

Nolen had already committed to the Gophers the summer before his junior year. The 6-foot 1-inch guard from Patrick Henry High School averaged 16 points and eight assists per game last year as a junior.