Free throws nearly cost Gophers in win over Cornell

Free throws nearly cost Gophers in win over Cornell

Josh Katzenstein

Tubby Smith was thrilled that the Minnesota menâÄôs basketball team had 44 free-throw attempts Saturday night because it meant the Gophers were feeding the post and playing aggressive.

He didnâÄôt like that his team hit just 26 of those free throws, a paltry 59.1 percent rate that nearly doomed the No. 15 Gophers against Cornell. They trailed for much of the first half but pulled out a 71-66 win at Williams Arena.

âÄúWeâÄôre an inside-oriented team, and we expect to get fouled,âÄù Smith said. âÄúOur post players have to expect to get fouled, and now theyâÄôve got to step up and make free throws.

âÄúI like the idea of getting there, so as long as we can keep getting there, weâÄôll figure out how to make them.âÄù

Junior forward Trevor Mbakwe finished with 12 points and 16 rebounds, but was at the forefront of the struggles from the line. He made just 12-of-20 attempts âÄî along with an 0-for-4 night from the field âÄî but hit ones down the stretch that saved the Gophers from a second consecutive defeat.

Minnesota suffered its first loss of the season Monday, blowing a 13-point lead against Virginia.

âÄúWe needed to get this win no matter what. No matter which way we got it we had to have this win,âÄù Smith said. âÄúI thought our guys showed a lot of grit, something we didnâÄôt do against Virginia.âÄù

The Big Red stayed in SaturdayâÄôs game with hot three-point shooting, hitting 14-of-33 from deep. Perimeter defense doomed the Gophers against Virginia, a flaw that opponents have exploited since senior guard Al Nolen injured his foot.

âÄúWe emphasized it in practice this week, but they were just getting open somehow,âÄù said senior guard Blake Hoffarber, who finished with 13 points and four assists.

MinnesotaâÄôs size helped avoid another letdown. Behind Mbakwe, they dominated the glass with a 48-33 edge, including a season-high 19 offensive rebounds, improving to 7-0 when winning the rebounding battle.

The spike in boards was due in part to the shooting struggles of both teams. The Gophers hit just 40.8 percent of their field goals and went nearly six minutes without one in the second half. Cornell shot only 35 percent for the game and made just seven two-point field goals.

Junior Ralph Sampson overcame a rough first half (1-for-6 shooting) to score 13 points and grab six rebounds. Sampson settled for multiple jumpers early in the game and said MbakweâÄôs ability to get the Big Red in foul trouble helped defenders ease off him as the game wore on.

âÄúI still think I have a long way to go until IâÄôm back to the level I want to be at,âÄù Sampson said. âÄúI canâÄôt put my finger on whatâÄôs causing it right now but itâÄôs something that IâÄôll definitely take a look at.âÄù

The Gophers also had a 28-19 edge in bench points, getting six points apiece from Rodney Williams, Chip Armelin and Mo Walker. Armelin also registered an assist and a steal in just seven minutes.

âÄúHis only problem is that heâÄôs backing up a guy like Blake Hoffarber,âÄù Smith said of Armelin. âÄúItâÄôs hard to take Blake out of the game because heâÄôs our most veteran and most savvy player.âÄù

Minnesota has plenty to work on before a Wednesday matchup at St. JosephâÄôs. The Hawks opened the season with a 98-70 home loss to Western Kentucky, a team the Gophers beat in the first round of the San Juan Tip-off earlier this season.

Until then, they will work to prevent another âÄúoff nightâÄù at the free-throw line and improve a defense that has been beaten by good three-point shooting teams.

âÄúWeâÄôve just got to make sure our guys understand that youâÄôve got to go out and take threes away from them,âÄù Smith said.