Gophers claim first winning streak since early January

Minnesota beat Indiana 81-58 just two days after besting Wisconsin.

Marco LaNave

The Gophers menâÄôs basketball team is having a little more fun these days. At least it looks and sounds that way after Minnesota cruised to an 81-58 victory over Indiana Saturday night at Williams Arena . The GophersâÄô first winning streak in seven weeks gives them a push entering a home game against No. 4 Purdue Wednesday. âÄúAny winâÄôs big, and these two are really big because we have momentum going into playing Purdue,âÄù said senior guard Lawrence Westbrook , who scored a team-leading 20 points. Less than 48 hours after the Gophers (16-10 overall, 7-7 Big Ten) earned an emotional victory against No. 14 Wisconsin, they had a crisp performance led by two seniors. Senior forward Damian Johnson had his third career double-double with 16 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. Westbrook, who didnâÄôt score against Wisconsin until the final 1:16, had his sixth career 20-point game, but it was the first time he added four rebounds and four assists. âÄúDamian and Lawrence did a good job of setting the tone for us early on by attacking the basket, playing smart, tough, hard-nosed defense âÄî things we have to do,âÄù Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. âÄúOur leadership [Saturday night] was outstanding.âÄù After combining for just three first-half points in an 81-78 overtime loss to the Hoosiers on Jan. 17, Westbrook and Johnson each scored eight points in the first nine minutes on Saturday. Minnesota hit 10 of its first 14 shots, including five 3-pointers, to build a 25-9 lead with 9:20 remaining in the first half. Meanwhile, Indiana (9-17, 3-11) made just three of its first 18 shots and had a seven-minute field goal drought in the first half. The Hoosiers shot a season-worst 32 percent and didnâÄôt come within 13 points of the Gophers after the first 10 minutes of the game. Smith said his team has done a better job contesting shots. He has backed off using full-court pressure to focus on half-court defense, which he said is partly to help the GophersâÄô bigger lineup used the past two games. Smith has rotated big men, including sophomore centers Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson, more frequently and also played them together more. It paid off in the GophersâÄô second-straight solid rebounding and defensive performance. âÄúI like the lineup,âÄù said Sampson, who had 11 points and eight of the teamâÄôs 40 rebounds. âÄúIt gives us a greater chance to rebound because we have two 7-foot players who can take up a lot of space and also block out a lot of people.âÄù Sampson also had a team-high five assists, as the Gophers tied their Big Ten season high of 23 assists. The Gophers shared the ball and energy more than they have in recent weeks. During a second-half timeout in what was already a blowout, the team still rushed off the bench to mob freshman guards Bryant Allen and Justin Cobbs after they had made their first career basket and slam dunk, respectively. âÄúWeâÄôre really pulling for each other right now,âÄù Sampson said. âÄúI think we also feed off each otherâÄôs energy during the game, and thatâÄôs what really brings us all to the same level, same plane.âÄù The teamâÄôs most visible sign of solidarity since before the Wisconsin game was that nearly every player shaved his head to show support for the family of junior forward Paul Carter, whose younger sister is receiving treatment for cancer, he said. âÄúBasketballâÄôs definitely important to all of us, but âĦ when you think about that stuff, it helps you just focus, and it helps you actually play better âĦ takes some of the pressure off,âÄù Carter said. âÄúYou know that, regardless of the outcome of the game or how you play, your familyâÄôs always going to be there for you.âÄù Smith and the players have expressed enthusiasm about the gesture. âÄúThat may be something we need to bond us together,âÄù Smith said after ThursdayâÄôs game. Smith said that supporting a teammateâÄôs family probably took the game off playersâÄô minds and relaxed them. âÄúThe spirit of it and the reason for it was bigger than just the game,âÄù Smith said.