Minnesota wins third straight in rout

All five starters scored in double figures for Minnesota, led by Joe Coleman’s 16.

Minnesota forward Rodney Williams goes up for a dunk against Northwestern on Sunday at Williams Arena.

Erin Westover

Minnesota forward Rodney Williams goes up for a dunk against Northwestern on Sunday at Williams Arena.

by Charlie Armitz

As a team in search of faster starts, the Gophers got exactly what they needed Sunday in a 75-52 home win against Northwestern.

The Wildcats missed their first 14 field goals, and Minnesota held leads of 11-0, 21-4 and 30-9 in the gameâÄôs first 15 minutes.

The Gophers (3-4 Big Ten) dominated Northwestern (2-5 Big Ten) from start to finish âÄî a rare occurrence during a Big Ten season that has been defined by parity.

âÄúI thought we caught Northwestern on a down day,âÄù head coach Tubby Smith said. âÄúWe had plenty of time to prepare, and I thought that was the difference on why we played well today.âÄù

Minnesota has been a much-improved team since losing its fourth-straight conference game to Purdue on Jan. 8 at Williams Arena.

With a modified starting lineup featuring Julian Welch at the point and Joe Coleman at shooting guard, the Gophers have won their last three games in convincing fashion.

On Sunday, Welch had his best game in more than a month, scoring 14 points on 7-for-8 shooting. The junior added six rebounds and five assists âÄî his first game with at least five rebounds and five assists this season.

Coleman was equally stellar. The freshman led Minnesota with 16 points on 5-for-7 shooting and 6-for-10 from the free-throw line. He also had five rebounds for the second consecutive game and set a career-high with three assists.

In one sequence late in the first half, Coleman recorded two of his three steals, a breakaway dunk and an assist within 1:07 to give Minnesota a 38-19 lead.

The Gophers took a 41-24 lead into halftime and never led by fewer than 14 points thereafter.

âÄúI felt like we came out of the gate and jumped on them quick, and just took it from there,âÄù Welch said. âÄú[We] continued to not let up and push that lead open.âÄù

The GophersâÄô 17-point halftime lead was their largest in a conference game since March 2010. Yet they maintained their intensity in the final 20 minutes, and for the first time since February 2011, they outscored a Big Ten opponent in both halves.

Much of that can be credited to ColemanâÄôs impact on the offense. With his slashing ability and physical play, the freshman has not only given himself a chance to succeed, but he has helped his teammates play at a noticeably higher level.

All five starters scored for Minnesota âÄî a feat the team hasnâÄôt accomplished since November 2010 âÄî while combining to shoot 63 percent from the field.

As a team, the Gophers shot 58 percent (30-for-52) and limited Northwestern to 33-percent shooting (18-for-55).

âÄúWeâÄôre all really aggressive going to the rim,âÄù Coleman said. âÄúIf we drive and kick, it kind of hurts the other team âÄî they donâÄôt know which one to pick, if they want to stop us on the drive or stop us on the kick.âÄù

ItâÄôs a legitimate predicament for GophersâÄô opponents, as Minnesota has multiple outside scoring options on both of its units, as well as a trio of guards âÄî Coleman, Welch and Austin Hollins âÄî that can beat defenders off the dribble.

âÄúI like it a lot,âÄù Welch said of the three-guard lineup. âÄúItâÄôs a quicker team âÄî we get up and down [the court] a lot easier. Now that weâÄôre running the flex offense, weâÄôre able to take our opponents off the dribble and get to the lane either for a layup or [to] kick it out for the shooter.âÄù

Prior to implementing the flex offense, the team was 0-4 in conference and often looked confused on offense, especially when faced with a zone defense.

Northwestern used a 1-3-1 zone defense Sunday to little effect. On multiple occasions, Minnesota passed or dribbled its way out of the trap for an easy layup or dunk.

The Gophers had 42 points in the paint to the WildcatsâÄô 18, shot 69 percent from inside the 3-point line and committed just 12 turnovers.

It was the kind of performance the team has always been capable of, Smith said.

But without ColemanâÄôs emergence, it might never have happened.

âÄúWeâÄôve added some toughness to our lineup when we inserted Joe Coleman,âÄù he added. âÄúItâÄôs been huge for us, and itâÄôs been contagious. I see Ralph [Sampson III] has been more aggressive; Rodney [Williams] has been more aggressive. Our entire team has benefited.âÄù

Perhaps the freshman has woken a sleeping giant âÄî a roster filled with size, quickness and athleticism âÄî or perhaps the team is simply lucky to have played three opponents on bad shooting nights.

Either way, Coleman appeared convinced that this Gophers team is the one that has been there all along.

âÄúIt just shows that we can still win games and that we werenâÄôt just at the bottom of the Big Ten for a bad reason,âÄù Coleman said of the teamâÄôs three-game winning streak.

âÄúWe were just in a slump, and we got out of it.âÄù