Minn. looks to continue hot start behind defense and momentum

The Gophers host Utah Valley Thursday Night at 7 p.m.

Marco LaNave

Before the season, the Gophers menâÄôs basketball players talked about how athletic they were, how they needed to play defense and play well together in order to succeed. Through two games, No. 24 Minnesota has executed that blueprint to win a pair of blowouts at Williams Arena. A repeat performance at home against Utah Valley on Thursday night would keep the Gophers perfect with a week to prepare for their matchup against No. 11 Butler at the 76 Classic on Nov. 26 in Anaheim, Calif. Last Friday, the Gophers had 15 blocked shots and 15 steals and held Tennessee Tech to 28 percent shooting in an 87-50 victory. Minnesota followed the victory with an eight-block, 13-steal outing in an 82-42 win over Stephen F. Austin on Monday. The 23 blocks in two games are the most the Gophers have had in consecutive games under head coach Tubby Smith, and the 28 steals are the most since amassing 33 combined steals against Santa Clara and Nicholls State in 2007. The game against Nicholls State was also the last time the Gophers had won by 40 points before Monday. âÄúWe always like to come out and put pressure on teams to try and pick up the game speed,âÄù sophomore guard Devoe Joseph said. In both games, the Gophers have had bursts before the break. They pushed a 7-point lead to 15 points before halftime on Friday. Then they took advantage of an 8:35 scoring drought by Stephen F. Austin to build a late first-half lead they would not relinquish. âÄúWhen you can gain that type of momentum going into the locker room, guys feel better about themselves; they get a little more confidence that they believe their shots can go in,âÄù Smith said after FridayâÄôs game. The waves of momentum drowned the Eagles and Lumberjacks, as the Gophers have scored one-third of their points from turnovers. The Gophers have also scored 19 of their 27 fast-break points in the second half, a period in which theyâÄôve also shot 64 percent from the field. âÄúWhen we get into our running game, weâÄôre much more effective âĦ when we can score from our turnovers,âÄù Smith said. Smith said each returner has improved since last season, and theyâÄôve shown it so far. Junior guard Al Nolen has 14 assists and just two turnovers in two games. Senior forward Damian Johnson has eight blocks and 11 steals. Sophomore center Ralph Sampson III has 20 rebounds and has come close to having a double-double in each game. Johnson and Sampson are also second and third, respectively on the team in assists. Then thereâÄôs freshman forward Rodney Williams. He has a team-best .714 shooting percentage and has scored 14 points off the bench in each of the first two games. Smith said Williams excels in the GophersâÄô up-tempo style and said after MondayâÄôs game that he would look closely at putting him in the starting lineup. âÄúYou can tell he plays with a real passion,âÄù Smith said. âÄúHe has all the basketball instincts and skills and certainly the athleticism to go along with it.âÄù Williams has pleased the home crowd with six slam dunks and three 3-point field goals. âÄúHeâÄôs a very gifted and graceful athlete,âÄù Smith said. Smith said the players are more comfortable after another year in his system, something clearly evident after the first two games. âÄúWe donâÄôt have anything to prove to anybody; weâÄôre just going to go out and play,âÄù senior guard Lawrence Westbrook said. âÄúWeâÄôve just got to stick together, and everything will fall into place.âÄù