Gophers men’s basketball scrapes past Western Michigan in season opener

UMN survived a second-half comeback to start the season with a home win 61-60.

Williams Arena as seen on Monday, June 17, 2019.

Tony Saunders

Williams Arena as seen on Monday, June 17, 2019.

by Azzan Al Jahwari

Just five days after a 16-point win against St. Olaf in an exhibition game, Gophers men’s basketball began a winning streak in their first official game of the season on Monday

Dawson Garcia and Ta’Lon Cooper combined for 40 of the Gophers’ 61 points in their season opener against West Michigan, with guard Cooper also putting up 10 assists and 8 rebounds.

Despite being short-handed to start the game, Gophers basketball romped to a nine-point lead by halftime behind an impressive first-half performance from Garcia. They expanded their lead to 13 points at the start of the second half.

However, the excitement was short-lived after West Michigan came back with a 34-point second half and a 6-0 closing run to nearly spoil the celebrations, as they came within one play of winning the game.

West Michigan guard Lamar Norman Jr. hit a late three to make the score 61-60 with 5 seconds left; however, it wasn’t enough, and the buzzer saved Minnesota from a nightmare start.

Free throws were the main stumbling block for the Gophers; they shot 9-23 from the line. Five of those free throw misses came in the closing 20 seconds of the game as the Broncos scored 10 of the last 12 points.

“Obviously, if we make some free throws, it’s a different story,” head coach Ben Johnson said after the game. The players shared this sentiment.

“We made some shots down the stretch, but we’ve definitely got to clean up the free throws,” said Garcia.

The 6-foot-11 sophomore transfer from North Carolina shot 50% from the field and 60% from the 3-point line as he put up a game-high 23 points in 31 minutes. He shot a team-high 47% from the free-throw line.

The Gophers will need to build momentum when they host St. Francis Brooklyn Friday at 6 p.m.