Threes are key in Gophers win

Minnesota went 13-of-23 from behind the arc in its 75-38 victory over UC-Riverside.

The Minnesota men’s basketball team record for three-pointers made in a game is 16. The Gophers probably could have broken that mark Saturday afternoon, but they didn’t need to.

Minnesota hit 13-of-23 three-pointers – 12 in the first 27 minutes of action – to cruise to a 75-38 victory over UC-Riverside at Williams Arena.

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north dakota state
what: Men’s basketball
when: 8 p.m., Monday
where: Williams Arena

After a poor shooting night in the Gophers’ first and only loss at Florida State, senior guard Lawrence McKenzie bounced back strong, hitting five of seven threes and finishing with a game-high 18 points.

Freshman guard Blake Hoffarber and sophomore forward Damian Johnson provided a much-needed spark for Minnesota off the bench, finishing with 13 and 12 points, respectively.

The Gophers started out sluggishly, but when coach Tubby Smith turned to his bench, Minnesota (4-1 overall, 0-0 Big Ten) turned away the Highlanders (2-5, 0-0 Big West).

Led by Hoffarber, who had 10 first-half points, the Gophers’ energetic bench helped turn a 20-16 game midway into the contest into a rout with a 19-2 run in the final five minutes of the first half.

It didn’t hurt that Minnesota couldn’t miss from the perimeter, either.

Using solid screens to their benefit in Smith’s wide-open motion offense, Hoffarber, McKenzie and junior forward Jamal Abu-Shamala combined to go 7-of-11 from behind the arc in the first.

Fittingly, Johnson – not known for his shooting touch last season – capped off Minnesota’s first-half, long-range barrage with a thee from the top of the key, the team’s eighth of the half, right before the first-half buzzer sounded, to give the Gophers a 39-18 lead at intermission.

Minnesota connected on four more three-pointers minutes into the second half – quickly putting the game out of reach for the Highlanders – and shooting 56.5 percent from behind the arc.

McKenzie, who hit three second-half threes to put the game on ice, said the Gophers’ hot shooting stemmed from confidence.

“I think basketball, it’s just a contagious sport. The energy is contagious. Playing defense, I think is contagious and I think hitting shots is contagious,” he said.

“If you see one guy hitting shots, you are confident enough to take that shot, and I think that’s what happened (Saturday).”

Abu-Shamala, who finished with 11 points, concurred with McKenzie.

“Definitely it’s contagious. Pretty much our whole team can shoot. When someone starts hitting shots it just picks up the energy and confidence and really just helps the whole team.”

Bench production

After the game, Smith was raving about his bench play, which produced 27 points, 15 rebounds, 13 assists, eight steals and five blocks.

“They’ve been giving us that all year. These guys, I have as much faith in them as I do anyone. They are all capable,” he said.

Smith wasn’t afraid to single out the production of Johnson either. Besides going 5-of-5 from the floor, the Thibodaux, La., native was his usual aggressive self – grabbing seven rebounds, blocking three shots and grabbing three steals.

“He’s playing extremely well. He played a heck of a game all the way around. He’s just having an excellent year all around,” Smith said.

Almost another record

By holding UC-Riverside to 30.4 percent shooting from the field for the game, including 26.7 percent in the second half, the Gophers almost set another program record Saturday – lowest point total by an opponent.

The Highlanders’ 38 points were one better than the all-time-low opponent record of 37, which was last accomplished in 1991 against Arizona State.

Monday game

So much for taking time to enjoy a win.

The Gophers five-game home stand continues tonight when Minnesota hosts North Dakota State (4-3, 0-0 Summit) at The Barn.

Tip-off is slated for 8 p.m.

The experienced Bison, who have eight players on their roster from Minnesota, are led by Albert Lea-native Ben Woodside. The junior guard is averaging a team-high 26.4 points and 5.4 assists per game.

NDSU has built a reputation as a team that can beat anyone, anywhere if its opponent allows the Bison into a game.

In the past two seasons, NDSU has won road games at then-No. 8 Marquette and then-No. 15 Wisconsin. Earlier this year the Bison played two-time defending national champion Florida close in Gainesville, losing only by 10, 75-65.

Johnson said the Gophers understand what NDSU is capable of and they won’t overlook the Bison.

“We are not going to take them lightly. We’re going to take this game as serious as possible,” Johnson said.