Gophers rally late to defeat Bucknell in season opener

Minnesota finished the game on a 22-5 run after trailing 53-48.

Charlie Armitz

Tubby Smith said last week that he was more concerned about his team finishing games than starting them.
That mentality showed Friday in MinnesotaâÄôs 70-58 opening-night win at Williams Arena against Bucknell.
The Gophers closed the game on a 22-5 run after trailing 53-48 with 5:30 left to play. Minnesota was dominant on both sides of the ball in the last five minutes after playing the Bison evenly through the first 35.
âÄúWe kept our composure, we gained our balance and made some shots,âÄù Smith said. âÄúOur kids showed a lot of poise, and we executed down the stretch to get the win … I thought we did the things necessary as far as sticking with the game plan [and] staying patient.âÄù
Fifteen of MinnesotaâÄôs last 22 points came on free throws âÄî an area in which the team struggled for most of the game.
Minnesota shot 23-for-35 overall from the free-throw line and missed seven of its first 16 attempts.
The Gophers also shot 3-for-15 from 3-point range and 40 percent from the field overall. Austin Hollins made two of his six 3-point attempts; the rest of the team was held scoreless from beyond the arc after Andre Hollins made a 3-pointer as part of a 7-0 Minnesota run to start the game.
Austin Hollins had 13 points, including 6 during MinnesotaâÄôs late-game run. He made a 3-pointer to tie the game at 53-53 and then made three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt to give the Gophers a 58-53 lead.
Hollins said the team played with a lot more confidence than it did in its two exhibition games.
âÄúI think all the nervousness was out of everybody in this first game,âÄù Hollins said. âÄúIt went smooth, and it started on defense.âÄù
The game was tightly officiated, with the two teams combining to commit 49 fouls, 34 of which came in the second half.
Trevor Mbakwe committed three fouls in the first 3:01 of the second half but stayed out of foul trouble the rest of the way while remaining aggressive. He scored five of the GophersâÄô last 10 points.
Mbakwe had 13 of his game-high 17 points and six of his 10 rebounds in the second half. He shot 9-for-13 from the free-throw line.
âÄúThe last five minutes we were down, and we all looked at each other and knew it was go time,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄúWe didnâÄôt want this game to be like how last season went.âÄù
Minnesota made a habit of losing close games last season. After two strong finishes in one week, the 2011-12 Gophers already look like a different team in that regard.
Minnesota rallied from a five-point halftime deficit to defeat Division II exhibition opponent Augustana, closing the game on a 9-0 run despite a similarly poor shooting performance.
Smith has called his 2011-12 Gophers the best group of shooters he has coached at Minnesota and said he maintains belief in his teamâÄôs shooting despite early struggles.
âÄúIâÄôm not worried,âÄù Smith said. âÄúItâÄôs early in the season. We have one of the best defenses in the country, and IâÄôm glad we kept our composure [against Bucknell].âÄù
He added: âÄúThereâÄôs nothing you can do but just keep shooting.âÄù
Next up: South Dakota State
The Gophers have a quick turnaround following their season-opening win, as they will host South Dakota State on Monday night at Williams Arena.
The Jackrabbits finished 10-8, fifth in the Division I Summit League conference last season (19-12 overall) behind the play of sophomore guard Nate Wolters, who averaged 19.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.1 assists.
Wolters returns in 2011-12 as a junior and could test MinnesotaâÄôs suspect perimeter defense.
Minnesota has allowed opponents to shoot 25-for-67 from 3-point range in exhibition and regular play.
However, the Gophers may have found a lockdown defender in Julian Welch, who played most of the teamâÄôs stretch run against Bucknell in place of starting point guard Andre Hollins.
Welch held BucknellâÄôs Bryson Johnson to four points on 0-for-3 shooting in the second half. Johnson had lit up the GophersâÄô defense with 12 points âÄî all on 3-pointers âÄî in the first half.
Whoever starts Monday will likely have to defend Wolters for most of the game.
SDSU was projected to finish third in the Summit League in the conferenceâÄôs preseason poll and had one first-place vote.
The Jackrabbits last played Minnesota on Dec. 23, 2010, when the Gophers won 85-73 at Williams Arena.