Gophers beat Bison in regular-season opener

Zach Eisendrath

For 22 minutes Monday night, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team struggled to find an offensive identity, as well as the bottom of the net.

Then, junior center Spencer Tollackson made his presence known and the Gophers extended a 23-18 halftime lead to a 63-49 victory over North Dakota State at Williams Arena.

“I really believe this in my heart – if we wouldn’t have gotten embarrassed like we were on Wednesday (against Winona State), we probably wouldn’t have won this game (Monday),” coach Dan Monson said. “We needed that, and I think it was very evident that we were better (Monday).”

Tollackson scored all 12 of his points in the second half to ignite Minnesota (1-0 overall, 0-0 Big Ten). Junior guard Lawrence McKenzie poured in 20 points and 10 rebounds, and junior forward Dan Coleman chipped in 13 points.

Plagued by foul trouble early, Tollackson only saw the court for seven minutes in the first half and was a non-factor, going 0-for-3 from the field.

But the first half was anything but pretty on either side.

Both teams started slow out of the gate, as neither team was able to put the ball in the basket for the first four and a half minutes.

And without Tollackson – as well as Coleman, who was also in foul trouble and only played nine first-half minutes – the Gophers’ offense sputtered.

After the starters couldn’t produce points, Monson elected to bring in five substitutions at once, but they were equally ineffective on the offensive end.

Tollackson said the team’s priority from the beginning was to keep North Dakota State, which shot 63 percent and put up 91 points against Idaho, from feeling comfortable at the Barn.

Minnesota’s exhibition finale was inundated with defensive breakdowns. But defensive rotations were clearly the least of the Gophers’ problems on Monday, as Minnesota held the Bison scoreless for an 8:21 span in the middle of the first half.

The Gophers didn’t fare much better, shooting 32.3 percent from the field and committing 10 turnovers in the first half. Fortunately, North Dakota State (1-1) was worse – shooting 20.7 percent and amassing 10 turnovers of its own, helping Minnesota to a 23-18 lead at halftime.

After a frustrating first half, Monson told Tollackson at halftime that he would need to shoulder the load in the second half.

However, it appeared Monson’s game plan hit a snag when Tollackson picked up his third personal just 1:10 into the second half, but Monson elected to keep his starting center in the game.

With the confidence of his coaches and teammates, Tollackson went to work. He scored 11 of his twelve points in a seven-minute stretch.

From there, McKenzie helped put the game on ice. He went on a personal 8-0 run midway through the half to put the Gophers up as many as 18.

After fouling out in Wednesday’s devastating loss to Winona State and getting off to a slow start Monday, Tollackson said it meant a lot to know his teammates still trust him.

“To have them have my back, and still be confident and throw it into me and be confident, I’m going to get to the line or make the shot, it means a lot,” he said.

Redshirt freshman guard Kevin Payton, who started at point guard, was one of those teammates that said he has confidence in the team’s big frontcourt threat.

He told Tollackson, “I’m going to keep looking for you, Spence. You can miss 20 shots and I’m going to keep looking for you.”

Payton said Monday’s win helps cure the pain of the exhibition loss.

“Of course it was horrible, that Winona State loss,” Payton said. “This North Dakota State win helped our confidence a little bit. I think it was a good first step in regaining our confidence.”