Molinari wins Gophers debut

Zach Eisendrath

Under the direction of new leadership, Minnesota’s men’s basketball team appears to be rejuvenated. Just ask any of the 10,198 on hand on Saturday afternoon at Williams Arena.

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WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Birmingham, Ala.

In the Gophers’ first game under interim head coach Jim Molinari, Minnesota played with effort and energy unseen in its first seven games and was able to hold off a late Arizona State comeback bid to escape with a 66-63 win.

Thanks to a game-high 20 points by junior guard Lawrence McKenzie and 15 points from junior forward Dan Coleman, the Gophers were able to snap their five-game losing skid.

“Obviously, we could have won it in a better way,” Molinari said. “But I think we avoided a devastating loss. I think if you don’t hold on there, then (the players’) confidence is really shot.”

Former coach Dan Monson, who resigned Thursday, sent the team text messages moments after the game, congratulating the players on the win.

Players, coaches and managers signed a ball after the game which they plan to give to Monson.

“We kind of wanted to get this one for coach Monson,” McKenzie said. “But we’re excited. It’s kind of like a new beginning for the team.”

McKenzie, who found out about Monson’s resignation while lying in bed Thursday morning, called the game therapeutic for a team that had been in a state of shock for the previous 48 hours.

In a state of shock or not, Minnesota played with the most intensity it’s displayed all season.

The Gophers (3-5 overall, 0-0 Big Ten) took a 32-30 lead into halftime, as neither team lead by more than five in the first half.

But once its shots started falling, Minnesota started rolling.

The Gophers came out of the locker room on fire offensively, hitting three-pointers on their first three field goal attempts to take a 41-31 lead.

Defensively, the Gophers were clicking on all cylinders. All five Minnesota players slapped the court in unison on numerous occasions throughout the second half to symbolize the team’s new defensive identity under Molinari, according to sophomore guard Jamal Abu-Shamala.

That new identity showed.

The Sun Devils (4-3, 0-0 Pacific 10) were held without a field goal for tyeshe first five-and-a-half minutes of the second half, helping balloon the Gophers lead to 19 with just under eight minutes remaining.

But as Molinari warned his players before the game, Arizona State had a rally left in it.

Using the same full-court pressure Clemson flustered Minnesota with Wednesday night, the Sun Devils forced numerous turnovers and opened the door for a comeback.

Molinari said Minnesota didn’t prepare for the press, since Arizona State hadn’t implemented it all year long.

Prepared or not, the turnovers mounted and the Gophers went cold from the field – going without a field goal for the final 5:22 of the game. That led to a 19-4 run by the Sun Devils, cutting their deficit to two with under a minute remaining.

After playing the foul-and-chase game, Arizona State had a chance to tie on the final possession of the game, but freshman guard Jerren Shipp – who hit a three-pointer seconds earlier – couldn’t connect from long-range as time expired.

Despite the scare, all’s well that ends well for a team in desperate search of getting into the win column, according to Abu-Shamala.

“It was huge for us as a team to sort of get that monkey off our back,” he said.

“It wasn’t perfect; we had some trouble with the press, but to end up winning is all that matters.”

Molinari, who becomes the seventh straight Minnesota head coach to win his first game, shared similar sentiments.

“Do we have a lot of work to do? Absolutely,” he said. “But, that said, I’m proud of our team. I’m proud that they found a way to win after building a big lead then losing it.”

Playing with pride

Molinari stressed after the game that he is going to play players who have proven they have a strong commitment to representing the University in a positive way.

“This is a privilege to be here,” he said. “So I wanted guys that I sensed in my time here, really cared about this program and that would fight.”

Evidently, sophomore center Jonathan Williams was one of those players. Williams was the first big man off the bench and played a season-high 16 minutes – scoring six points, grabbing five rebounds and blocking two shots.

According to McKenzie, Williams has been an aggressor in practice lately. It certainly showed Saturday.

“He has kind of been our bully lately and that’s his job,” McKenzie said.

Williams’ emphatic rejection of Shipp with 56.5 seconds remaining in the first half brought the decibel level of the Barn to a place it hadn’t been all year, and helped swing the momentum in the Gophers’ favor heading into the second half.

“He brought (the team) a spark today,” McKenzie said. “When he gets out there and sets his mind on something, he can go out there and do it. He (can) have a great defensive role on this team.”