Free throws propel Gophers past Stags

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 was a weapon in Thursday nightâÄôs 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).

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

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 wasnâÄôt 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 his foul shooting was a point of emphasis in the offseason.

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

Neither team held 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 halfâÄôs final 2:13 helped the Gophers grab a 29-24 halftime lead.

âÄúCoach is always telling us to crash the boards. IâÄôm trying to do more of that,âÄù Hollins said. âÄúThe second one I just had a little energy and was trying to get the team pumped up.âÄù

The sloppy play continued in the second half. Freshman forward Oto Osenieks made the GophersâÄô 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 got no closer than four points the rest of the way. A barrage of Minnesota free throws âÄî a majority of which were made by Mbakwe and freshman point guard Andre Hollins âÄî and a couple timely baskets helped Minnesota hang on for the win.

âÄúThatâÄôs one of the things down the stretch last year. I was uncomfortable [at the line] I guess,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄúI think this year IâÄôve been doing a good job of being aggressive and taking my time at the free throw line and knocking them down.âÄù

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

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