Gophers get their blowout in bittersweet win over Eastern Washington

Trevor Born

Some wondered if Eastern Washington could be the nonmajor team to upset Minnesota in their early nonconference schedule.

Not even close.

The Gophers held a comfortable lead most of the game Wednesday night, winning 88-67 and improving to 5-0. It was bittersweet, though, as forward Paul Carter went down with a nasty ankle injury, adding to the list of injuries to Minnesota big men.

True freshman center Colton Iverson lead the team with a career-high 20 points, and Blake Hoffarber had 12. Five players finished in double figures.

The Gophers went down to the wire with Bowling Green in their second game, and needed a late lay-up to squeak out a one-point win against Colorado State on Saturday.

“It feels good,“ Hoffarber said. “You never want to have something like the Colorado State game. That’s too much at the end. It feels good to go out there and have a 20-point win, or however much it was.” 

Eastern Washington seemed upset-worthy, too, especially with point guard Benny Valentine. The Gophers have struggled to stop speedy guards that like to penetrate, and Valentine, a transfer from Bobby Knight’s Texas Tech, was averaging 18 points per game coming in.

The Gophers failed to stop Valentine, who scored 29, but still pulled away early in the first half. A 13-2 run midway through gave them a comfortable 13-point lead that steadily grew. 

“Valentine’s hard to guard because he’s so small and his shoulders are always below the defenders,” Hoffarber said. “He was feeling it.” 

Iverson scored his points on an assortment of close range shots — be it jumpers, lay-ins or sky hooks — which head coach Tubby Smith focused on for the game. It’s easy to see why, as Iverson finished an efficient 10-for-13 from the floor.

“He was a monster,” Damian Johnson said. “I‘ve been talking to him for a while about just taking the  ball and going right over and not waiting for the double team to get to you. He was really going at it. You gotta enjoy that.”

Iverson, who wasn’t available for comment because of Smith’s rule not allowing freshmen to talk after games until the Big Ten schedule starts, continued to struggle on the boards, getting just one defensive rebound. Fellow true freshman Ralph Sampson III picked up the slack, pulling down seven in just 16 minutes, as the Gophers outrebounded Eastern Washington 31-26.

Carter was taken to the hospital after the game, and though there is no news on his status, there wasn’t much optimism from Smith or his players.

Losing Carter is a big blow, as Johnson is just returning from a hand injury and senior center Jonathan Williams is out with a sports hernia.
“It’s been crazy,” Smith said. “We’ve probably had more injuries or sicknesses than I think I’ve experienced in such a short period of time.”

Junior guard Lawrence Westbrook missed the game with tendonitis in his shins, though Smith said he will return for Saturday‘s game against North Dakota State. Sampson and Hoffarber both tweaked their ankles in the game, too, Smith said, but should also be ready for Saturday’s game.