Gophers handle Fairfield despite sloppy play

The teams combined to commit 43 turnovers in Minnesota’s 67-57 home win.

by Samuel Gordon

Historically, free throw shooting has been a weakness for Minnesota, but it served as a weapon in Thursday night’s sloppy 67-57 win against Fairfield.

The Gophers used the charity stripe to put away a scrappy Stags team in a game that featured more turnovers (43) than field goals (39).

“[Fairfield] really created a lot of problems for us as far as handling their pressure,” head coach Tubby Smith said. “We had 23 turnovers which is very, very disappointing. … We looked pretty disorganized. That’s an area that really concerns us.”

The teams exchanged baskets and turnovers all night long, but the Gophers were 27-for-31 from the foul line and outscored the Stags by 12 in that department.

Senior forward Trevor Mbakwe led Minnesota with 20 points and 10 rebounds for his third straight double-double, but it wasn’t exactly conventional.

Mbakwe was just 2-for-7 from the floor, but was 16-for-18 from the foul line. His 16 makes are a career-high. Mbakwe, who is shooting 75 percent from the free-throw line this season (30-for-40), said that foul shooting was a point of emphasis in the offseason.

“That was the first thing I did in the off-season. I missed too many free throws last year,” Mbakwe said. “I know that teams are going to foul me the way I play and I have to be able make them pay for fouling me.”

Neither team could hold the lead for an extended period of time in the first half, as there were four ties and six lead changes. Two Austin Hollins dunks, including a vicious one-handed tip slam, in the half’s final 2:13 helped the Gophers grab a 29-24 halftime lead.

“Coach is always telling us to crash the boards. I’m trying to do more of that,” Hollins said. “The second one I just had a little energy, and was trying to get the team pumped up.”

The sloppy play continued in the second half. Freshman forward Oto Osenieks made the Gophers’ only two three pointers of the night to put them up 45-37 with 11 minutes to play, but Fairfield hung around. Two straight Stags baskets by Desmond Wade and Rakim Sanders cut the lead to four.

Sanders and center Derek Needham led Fairfield with 14 points each.

Fairfield would get no closer than four points the rest of the way. A barrage of Minnesota free throws, a majority of which were made by Mbakwe and freshman point guard Andre Hollins, and a couple timely baskets helped Minnesota hang on for the win.

“That’s one of the things down the stretch last year. I was uncomfortable [at the line] I guess,” Mbakwe said. “I think this year I’ve been doing a good job of being aggressive and taking my time at the free throw line and knocking them down.”

The win improves Minnesota’s record to 3-0 on the season, but Smith said the team needs to improve ball security and execution moving forward.

“We need to get better at taking care of the ball and if we can do that I think we’ll clean up some areas there,” Smith said. “We have a lot to work on.”