Slow start fires up Gophers in rout

Minnesota overcame an early deficit and poor shooting to beat North Florida.

on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, at William Arena.

Anthony Kwan

on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, at William Arena.

Charlie Armitz

The Gophers only needed two players to shine Saturday — Trevor Mbakwe and Austin Hollins — to pull away from North Florida.

But Minnesota has more to prove this season, so others got involved, putting a team stamp on an 87-59 rout at Williams Arena.

The Gophers (8-1) returned from a four-game, weeklong road trip by starting slowly on their home court. But they left little doubt in the end, finishing with season-highs in points, blocks, steals and offensive rebounds against the struggling Ospreys (3-5).

“We responded the right way,” head coach Tubby Smith said. “We picked up the intensity and picked up the pressure.”

A year ago, routing an inferior opponent was a pleasant surprise for Minnesota. Now, the No. 21 Gophers are doing it with every opportunity. They’ve yet to play a close game this season at home, where they’re 5-0.

Their depth is a big reason for that. Led by Mbakwe, Minnesota’s second unit helped it turn an early eight-point deficit into a 37-27 halftime lead Saturday.

The Gophers’ pressure defense held North Florida to six points in the last 10 minutes of the first half.

Unlike his fellow starters, Hollins hustled and played with aggression throughout the game. He struggled with his shot early, but his effort paid off on a putback dunk that tied the game at 21-21 and brought the crowd to its feet midway through the first half.

The dunk, which was part of a 15-0 Gophers run, shifted the momentum and forced a North Florida timeout.

“He took it upon himself to be more aggressive,” Smith said of Hollins. “I’m glad to see him step up and take charge like that.”

Hollins had 12 points, four blocks and six rebounds, including five of the Gophers’ 25 offensive boards.

The rest of the Gophers’ first unit looked sluggish early on. Rodney Williams, Joe Coleman and Andre Hollins combined to shoot 3-for-12 in the first half, while missing many defensive assignments.

“The first five came out starting the game real flat,” Williams said. “We’ve got to give a lot of credit to our second five that came in and showed us the intensity that we needed to [win].”

Smith substituted five reserves at once in the first half — a strategy for which he’s been criticized throughout his career. But it’s worked this year, thanks in large part to Mbakwe’s energy and dominance off the bench.

Mbakwe had 11 points in eight first-half minutes Saturday. He created spacing on offense by drawing double teams and took pressure off his teammates by scoring and rebounding with ease.

“I love Trevor coming in wherever,” Austin Hollins said. “I think it is a spark, Trevor coming off the bench. … I think he’s just trying to work his way back in there.”

Both Gophers units played with energy in the second half, when the lead ballooned to 20 points. Williams was especially active, which helped him finish with team highs in points (14) and rebounds (8).

Minnesota extended its lead throughout the game despite missing open layups and shooting 1-for-13 from three-point range. Smith said Minnesota needs to concentrate better on its shots, but he praised its defense after the lackluster start.

The Gophers finished with 13 blocks and 15 steals, many of which they turned into fast-break scores. They also forced 22 turnovers and held North Florida to 35 percent shooting.

“That’s our DNA,” Smith said. “We’ve got to hang our hat on our defense.”

Ingram misses game

Forward Andre Ingram missed the game because of his grandmother’s death. Smith said he expects him back Tuesday when the Gophers host South Dakota State.