Gophers play more sound overall in 86-64 victory over W. Illinois

The Leathernecks did not score in the second half until 10:24, with Minnesota up by 26.

The opening minutes of the second half of Minnesota’s men’s basketball game Saturday afternoon spoke volumes about how far the team has come in the last week.

After slipping by mid-major Furman in overtime Nov. 30, the Gophers were better in a close loss at Virginia last Wednesday.

Entering the second stanza against Western Illinois on Saturday and only ahead by seven points, the Gophers cranked up the defense, found their offense and cruised to their largest margin of victory this season.

By the time the Leathernecks scored their first field goal of the half at the 10:24 mark, Minnesota had built a 26-point lead en route to an 86-64 win before 11,791 fans at Williams Arena.

It wasn’t the offense that sparked Minnesota’s win. It was the defense.

In the opening minutes of the second half, the Gophers (3-2) forced three turnovers, contested the Leathernecks’ 11 shots – all misses – and put pressure on the ball.

And Gophers coach Dan Monson knew the offense would emerge sooner or later.

“Everyone’s offense is inconsistent (at this time of year),” Monson said. “The team who wins strings together stops, and that is what we did today. We have to start doing it on a consistent basis.”

Point guard Aaron Robinson played a large role in the second half defense. The junior played a season-high 16 minutes and found a niche in Monson’s rotation.

Robinson was also instrumental in pressuring the ball. In addition, he tallied two steals.

“This was a statement game for us defensively,” Robinson said. “If you get one stop, then you want to get more stops.”

Robinson, along with starting point guard Adam Boone, combined to have an impressive game offensively as well.

The duo tallied 18 assists and only one turnover. Boone’s 10 and Robinson’s eight assists were each career highs.

Ben Johnson also emerged in the second half. The senior finished with 23 points, 20 of which came after of the intermission.

Johnson finished the game shooting 10-for-12 from the field.

“We made a point,” Johnson said. “Our effort and focus were much better. Our defense was improved.”

In the second half, Minnesota shot 59 percent. In addition, the Gophers dominated on the boards, tallying 53 rebounds in the win, the most in five seasons.

Freshman forward Kris Humphries notched another double-double, recording 14 rebounds and a season-low 14 points.

Leathernecks coach Derek Thomas said his game plan was to contain the Chaska, Minn., native.

“Humphries is a beast,” Thomas said. “We didn’t want him to go off.

“I saw my guys sucking air at half and I didn’t know how much they had left.”

Leading 26-14 with less than seven minutes left in the first half, the Gophers hit a speed bump before intermission.

Western Illinois (0-7) scored the next eight points, igniting Thomas, a former Gophers assistant.

But the Gophers managed to respond with baskets by Stan Gaines and Moe Hargrow to pad the lead to seven and set the scene for the second half.

Hargrow added 16 points in the victory. Doyle Cole and J.D. Summers added 13 a piece to lead Western Illinois.

Minnesota faces Long Beach State on Tuesday night at Williams Arena, the team’s second contest of its five-game home stand.

While the Gophers weren’t facing a basketball power Saturday, playing closer to a complete 40 minutes than any other game this season is an encouraging sign.

It also gives Monson hope Minnesota is moving in the right direction.

“We’re not sitting here saying we fixed everything,” Monson said. “We showed signs of learning (Saturday) from our past two games.”

• Center Jeff Hagen played only two minutes against Western Illinois.

Hagen tweaked his left ankle in the first half and didn’t return. The 7-footer suffered a high ankle sprain two weeks ago but returned to play 17 minutes against Virginia.

“Hagen wanted to come back in,” Monson said.

Monson further said it made more sense to rest him the remainder of the game because of the score and because he could get additional rest with the off day Sunday.