Minnesota plays three and wins three to open season

Coach Tubby Smith had a lot of opportunities to learn some things about the team heâÄôll be putting on the floor this season. The Gophers opened up its regular season with three consecutive wins at the NABC Classic, beating Concordia-St. Paul 76-51 Friday, squeaking out a win Saturday against Bowling Green 68-61 before ending the weekend with a 60-52 win against Georgia State on Sunday. MinnesotaâÄôs guards stole the spotlight over the weekend, as both junior Lawrence Westbrook and sophomore Al Nolen were stellar throughout the tournament. Nolen accrued 21 assists and 12 steals in the three games and Westbrook brought home 48 points, something Smith said heâÄôs happy to see in his guard. âÄúHe stepped up big and did some good things for us throughout this tournament,âÄù Smith said. Any question marks about Nolen and his playmaking abilities coming into the season were, at least for the time being, answered over the weekend. Nolen came in looking polished and confident Friday, and it showed as he led all Minnesota scorers with 17 points. As if that wasnâÄôt enough, the Minneapolis native added six assists. âÄúHeâÄôs a point guard. HeâÄôs a leader on the team. WeâÄôre playing without two guys, both veterans, and it shows,âÄù Smith said. âÄúAlâÄôs job is to do just what he did âÄî attack the basket and play solid defense, which he did.âÄù Though Nolen had a tough time scoring on Sunday, chipping in just two points, his ability to make plays and get other people involved was apparent in his six assists and five steals. âÄúI feel like itâÄôs necessary to be a go-to guy, seeing as I got a year under my belt,âÄù he said. âÄúEverybody looks to the point guard to step up and lead. IâÄôve got the ball in my hands most of the time, and I felt like I had to make a couple of plays and get a couple of guys going.âÄù And though their youth and inexperience showed through at times, Nolen did get MinnesotaâÄôs young big men under the basket involved, and they showed moments of brilliance throughout the weekend. Specifically, freshman Colton Iverson, who started all three games over the weekend, broke out in Saturday nightâÄôs win against the Falcons. Iverson scored six points and pulled down eight rebounds on the night, but, more impressively, swatted away nine blocked shots which helped Minnesota to school record 17 blocked shots, the previous record being just 13. âÄúFor our young guys like Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson and between our three big guys with 17 blocks, which is a school record, is a quite an outing for our second game,âÄù Smith said. But the two wins on Friday and Saturday took effect on the Gophers on Sunday evening. Three consecutive games to start the season proved tiresome for both Minnesota and Georgia State. The Gophers had the lead the whole game, but came out in the second half bogged down. Minnesota didnâÄôt hit a field goal until the 14:51 mark and had trouble putting the Panthers away. Senior Jamal Abu-Shamala said he attributed a lot of it to fatigue. âÄúWhenever you play three games back-to-back-to-back, itâÄôll take its toll on you,âÄù he said. âÄúYou practice every day, but itâÄôs a different intensity when youâÄôre playing games. I think it definitely had a factor in the way the game turned out, but you have to push through it.âÄù