Gophers sloppy early, but still win

Minnesota’s size proved to be too much as the Gophers pulled away with a 77-59 win over the Chippewas.

by Luke Middendorf

After a rough fall season for Minnesota athletics, Gophers fans were left with little to be happy about as they ate their turkey dinners over the Thanksgiving holiday.

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what: Men’s Basketball Big Ten/ACC Challenge
when: 6:30 p.m., Tuesday
where: Tallahassee, Fla.

But with new head coach Tubby Smith maintaining an undefeated record following a 77-59 win over Central Michigan on Saturday, Gophers fans might finally have something to be thankful for.

After starting 2-0 last season under the helm of former coach Dan Monson, the Gophers followed by dropping their next five games, leading to Monson’s departure from the program.

On Saturday, Smith made sure not to repeat history.

The first-year coach has sparked last year’s 9-22 team to a 3-0 start, while also sparking a Minnesota fan base that is clearly hungry for a competitive program – seen in a nearly packed Williams Arena to watch the Gophers (3-0 overall, 0-0 Big Ten) host Central Michigan during Thanksgiving weekend.

“The team is playing with a lot more confidence, and I think its just going to continue to build,” senior guard Lawrence McKenzie said, who finished with 10 points.

The Chippewas (0-4 overall, 0-0 MAC), led by preseason MAC player of the year Giordan Watson, were able to stay close with Minnesota in the first half by not allowing the Gophers to get the ball inside their senior duo of Spencer Tollackson and Dan Coleman.

The speedy Watson, who finished with a game high 22 points, kept Central Michigan’s offense flowing with his solid point guard play – getting by Gophers defenders with a quick first step to set up his post players for easy baskets or to finish with a soft touch at the rim.

The first half was a scrappy battle underneath Minnesota’s basket, with no man getting to the hoop without a fight.

To counter the Chippewas’ defensive strategy inside, the Gophers turned to their outside shooters to maintain a slim halftime lead at 35-29.

Freshman guard Blake Hoffarber finished 3-of-5 from three-point land, and sophomore guard Lawrence Westbrook, who led Minnesota with eight first half points, hit a key three in the corner with 4:37 left in the first to awake the 12,194 in attendance at Williams arena.

But no moment was louder in the first half than the last one, as the 6-foot-9-inch, 260-pound Tollackson called for the ball with just a few seconds remaining and uncharacteristically swished a 30-foot three-pointer, the first of his four-year college career, to send the Barn into a frenzy.

Tollackson called the shot a “prayer that was answered,” saying it felt good out of his hands but was shocked when it went in.

The senior center displayed another non-typical play early in the second half, stealing a soft pass at the top of the key and dribbling coast-to-coast to finish with a triumphant two-handed slam.

Tollackson ended with a team-high 14 points and chipped in six rebounds, but most importantly established a much-needed inside presence for Minnesota in the second half.

Tired bodies and lack of size were the Chippewas’ downfalls late in the game, displayed through lazy technical fouls on two-straight possessions. Minnesota capitalized by hitting all four free throws.

“That’s what we try to do is wear them down with our size,” Smith said.

The Gophers also utilized their size advantage by out-rebounding Central Michigan 35-21, creating a multitude of second chance points and playing with a new-found sense of pride and hustle.

“There’s definitely a different feel out there,” McKenzie said. “You just see a lot more people that are excited about Gopher basketball. It’s exciting for us and it’s exciting for the fans.”