Tenacity fuels men’s hoops win over Eastern Washington

by Jabari Ritchie

Minnesota’s men’s basketball team entered the season with its leading scorer and rebounder returning along with a highly touted recruiting class, including an All-American junior college transfer and a top-10 recruit.

But after Saturday’s 86-68 win over Eastern Washington at Williams Arena, the Gophers talked about how pleased they were to play more like last year’s 18-14 team that finished ninth in the Big Ten.

“Guys know we’ve got talent on this team, and a lot of times we’ll be able to match up with anybody,” said junior guard Kevin Burleson, who had six points and eight assists. “Last year we played off heart because we knew we were undermanned. Sometimes we need to look past our talent and play with just heart.”

With strong starts in each half and equal performances in the first and second, Minnesota played its most aggressive and consistent game on Saturday. The Gophers also shot 54.5 percent from the field.

“Our team’s starting to come together and everybody’s understanding that we’re going to need to play as hard as we can,” said forward Michael Bauer, who had 17 points on Saturday. “If we play this year as hard as we did last year, with the talent we have, I think the sky’s the limit for this team.”

Three minutes into Saturday’s game, it didn’t look as if heart would be necessary for Minnesota (3-0). The Gophers were up 9-0 with no signs of looking back.

Then the Eagles (2-2) hit five three-pointers in a row.

“We just had to come together as a team a lot more because we got up early,” said freshman forward Rick Rickert, who had his first double-double with 10 rebounds and 14 points. “We couldn’t glide through this gameÖ They started to get hot from the outside and that’s when we had to step up our D and push up the score a little bit.”

The Eagles, who made six of their first seven from behind the arc, closed the margin to one, but Eastern Washington wasn’t able to make a two-point field goal until 6:13 remained in the half, helping the Gophers build a 41-32 halftime lead.

Led by Bauer’s 15 second-half points, Minnesota opened the half with a 14-3 run to keep the Eagles out of the game. Bauer has led all three games in scoring.

“I only scored two points in the first half and we were still up,” he said. “I don’t even care about my points. I’m not out there to score the most on the team or anything. I just wait for my shots to come and if I’m the open guy I shoot. I think our team’s doing a great job of playing unselfishly.”

It was the second-straight road loss for Eastern Washington, which opened the season with a win over then-No. 9 St. Joseph’s.

“We came right out and just started attacking them,” said Bauer. “When we came out in the second half we knew we had to do the same thing, just to keep attacking them or else they’d get some trust in their game and try to attack us like they did St. Joe’s. We basically took the life out of them at the beginning of each half.”

For its third consecutive game, Minnesota’s opponent had at least 20 turnovers. The Eagles gave up the ball 24 times, and the Gophers had 12 steals.

Minnesota also had 10 blocks ñ five from Rickert, who blocked two shots at the buzzer ñ for the first time since Dec. 30.

“I think that comes from being proactive and being the aggressor,” said coach Dan Monson.

“We’re going to have to be a team that creates some steals and get in some lanes because we’re not a smashmouth football team that can just go toe to toe with you. We’ve got to trap and we’ve got to use our quickness and our length. The blocks come from flying around and playing aggressive basketball and that is something we really did a good job of tonight.