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Gophers wait until late yet again

They needed another large run – this time 18-0 – to defeat Central Michigan.

It was yet another slow start from a team that knows it can’t afford them, but Minnesota’s men’s basketball team left Williams Arena on Saturday with another comeback win.

In a back-and-forth game in which the score was tied 17 times and the lead changed eight times, Minnesota used a late 18-0 run to beat Central Michigan 77-63 in front of 9,320.

The Gophers (5-3) trailed 53-47 with just more than 10 minutes left on the clock after Giordan Watson and Kevin Nelson hit back-to-back three-pointers as the shot clock ran down for the Chippewas.

But Central Michigan (4-3) wouldn’t score for almost 5 1/2 more minutes.

“I thought they really had a good spurt there for five minutes,” Chippewas coach Jay Smith said. “I thought that after those two threes they’d be back on their heels. But give them credit – they stepped it up.”

Gophers players pointed to their defense as the key to the 18-0 run. It produced seven turnovers and was responsible for holding the Chippewas to just 10 points in the final 10 minutes.

“We just got our defense clicking and turned it into offense,” said senior Jeff Hagen, who scored a game- and career-high 21 points. “We just got the same feeling that they couldn’t score on us like against Nebraska.”

Indeed, big closing runs after ugly opening stanzas have been Minnesota’s calling card of late – they had a 15-0 run late against Nebraska on Wednesday.

But Hagen said the team can’t always count on a big closing run and needs to start stronger. The game against Central Michigan was no different – the team found itself trailing by six just eight minutes into the game.

“It seems to be our trend,” Hagen said. “Even though the finish is more important, we need to use this as a learning experience and understand that we have to give it our all from the beginning to enjoy the game.”

But as much as defense keyed the Gophers’ big run, the team might not have enjoyed the game at all if not for Hagen’s relative dominance inside.

On a day when Minnesota was 0-for-10 from three-point land, Hagen and the rest of the squad outscored the Chippewas 40-14 in the paint and also got to the free-throw line 43 times, hitting 31 of those attempts.

Although Gophers coach Dan Monson was fairly pleased overall, the game was not the steady performance from start to finish the team needs, he said.

“We know we’ve got to start better,” Monson said. “We have a very small margin for error, and we weren’t ready like we need to be.”

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