As should be expected during an exhibition game, it was a mistake-filled night when Minnesota’s men’s basketball team opened its preseason slate on Friday night.
But fortunately for the Gophers, they didn’t make most of the mistakes.
Minnesota cruised to an 88-32 victory over the undersized and undertalented Division II Bemidji State, dismantling the Beavers at Williams Arena.
And the Gophers did all this with its likely starting backcourt – juniors Limar Wilson and Lawrence McKenzie – sitting out of the game with minor undisclosed injuries.
Coach Dan Monson said both are day-to-day and both of their statuses for Wednesday’s final exhibition game against Division II National Champion Winona State is still up in the air.
Freshman guard Lawrence Westbrook paced Minnesota with 21 points. Junior forward Dan Coleman added 14 points and nine rebounds in only 19 minutes of work.
There were many things that could have been handled more efficiently throughout the night, such as the ball.
Bemidji State looked exactly like a Division II team picked to finish seventh in its conference. The Beavers, who only dressed eight players, made mistakes early and often, committing 22 first-half turnovers and 31 in total.
Winona State Exhibition
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday WHERE: Williams Arena
The Gophers had a disconcerting 16 turnovers, but not much else went wrong against the Beavers.
Perhaps the most encouraging performances of the night came from two players whose roles on the team are still up in the air.
Redshirt freshman guard Kevin Payton poured in 10 points and 11 assists in his first game with the Gophers, and proved he could handle the responsibilities at point guard. Junior forward Engen Nurumbi also had a solid night, grabbing a game-high 13 rebounds.
Monson said both Payton and Nurumbi played even better than what he had previously seen out of them during the first three weeks of practices.
“Kevin (Payton) was very serviceable,” Monson said.
“He really puts athletic pressure at that position, especially when other point guards are small.”
After initially taking a 9-5 lead entering the game’s first timeout, Minnesota went on a dominating 42-7 run to end the half – which included holding the Beavers scoreless for a 7:59 stretch – and took a commanding 51-12 lead into the locker room.
Despite the large lead, the Gophers still played with tenacity in the second half. Minnesota went on a 10-0 run after intermission, adding to its lead.
“I think that any time you are up like that, it is easy to let things slip and slide a little bit,” junior center Spencer Tollackson said. “But I like the way we stayed focused.”
With a huge size advantage, Tollackson said the team’s game plan was to go inside and work its way outside as the game progressed.
But it was Westbrook who brought instant energy off the bench and ignited the Gophers’ early rally when he entered the game in the first half.
Westbrook said he sees himself playing a similar role throughout the season.
“Whatever I need to do for the team to win – kind of like Ben Gordon did for (the) Chicago (Bulls) his first year off the bench,” Westbrook said. “It doesn’t matter who starts the game. It matters who ends it. I think I should be productive for this team throughout the season.”
The only player that appeared to struggle in Minnesota’s dominating first half was sophomore guard Jamal Abu-Shamala.
But after a scoreless first half, the Shakopee native poured in back-to-back-to-back threes and in total, hit four in a little over a three-minute span in the second half to finish the game with 12 points.
Monson put the game in perspective afterward, understanding his team should dismantle a team of Bemidji State’s caliber, especially since it was Beavers’ coach Matt Bowen’s first game with the program.
“I think defensively we are on the right track but it is a hard game to measure (improvement),” he said. “But with two of our most prominent players out, we still have a lot of unanswered questions.”