Lawrence McKenzie made sure Tubby Smith’s 400th career victory did not have to wait any longer.
The senior guard scored a team-high 18 points – all in the second half – to help the Minnesota men’s basketball team snap its three-game losing streak and finally give his Hall of Fame-bound coach the milestone that eluded him over the past few weeks with a 77-65 win over Michigan at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor on Thursday night.
Senior forward Dan Coleman added 17 points and 11 rebounds and sophomore guard Lawrence Westbrook added a career-high 15 points in a game the Gophers never trailed in.
“I’m just excited to get a win. Whether 400 or the first, we needed a win,” Smith said on his postgame radio show. “The guys were focused tonight and came ready to play.”
A team effort, sparked by stifling defense and spectacular shooting – the Gophers shot 58 percent from the field – put Minnesota (13-6 overall, 3-4 Big Ten) out front, then McKenzie shut the door.
McKenzie, who has made a habit out of countering quiet first halves with high-scoring second halves in recent games, continued that trend Thursday.
With Minnesota clinging to an eight-point lead entering the second half, McKenzie, who also had five rebounds and five assists, took over.
A layup by McKenzie moments into the final 20 minutes of play put the Gophers up 40-26. A few possessions later, McKenzie calmly drilled a step-back three-pointer as the shot clock expired. And after McKenzie delivered a dagger-three midway through the half, Minnesota had its biggest lead of the night at 55-34.
“(McKenzie) made some clutch shots,” Smith said.
What a difference a couple days can make. After never being able to recover from a blink-of-the-eye 11-0 deficit at Ohio State on Saturday night, the Gophers, with stifling defense mixed with low-post scoring, jumped out to an 11-2 lead against the Wolverines (5-16, 1-8).
And five days after trailing 19-3 at one point in Columbus, the Gophers, relying on high percentage shots – scoring 22 of their 34 first half points in the paint – led 17-6 to start the game and never looked back.
“We set the tone early by going inside,” said Smith, who watched as senior center Spencer Tollackson poured in 14 points. “I thought that was the key.”
A 21-point lead dwindled down to 10 in the final minute, but the Gophers left Ann Arbor victorious with a big home game against No. 13 Wisconsin looming at 1 p.m. Sunday at Williams Arena.