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Gophers men’s basketball unfazed by recent setbacks

The Gophers men’s basketball team dropped three games but remains confident in their ability to bounce back.
Image by Amaya Battle
Pharrel Payne shooting a free throw against Bethune-Cookman on Nov. 6, 2023.

As Big Ten play intensifies, the Gophers are unfazed by their recent matchups but will face a tough stretch of games ahead.

Minnesota men’s basketball started the new calendar year building their Big Ten resume with wins against Michigan and Maryland. Since then, hope dwindled among fans after the Gophers dropped three of their following conference matchups (Indiana, Iowa and Michigan State) and will face Wisconsin, the No. 1 team in the conference, on Tuesday.

Despite the final scores of the last three games, forward Dawson Garcia hit a total of 52 points in the aggregate against Iowa and Michigan State while guard Elijah Hawkins is currently leading the NCAA in assists with 132 on the season.

Garcia said the team “can’t take [their] foot off the gas” when they are down five or six points like they were against Iowa and Michigan State.

Gophers assistant coach Dave Thorson knew the Gophers were having an off game in the first half against Iowa. Head coach Ben Johnson said Thorson gave players a pep talk to remind them not to lose their sense of identity as a team when there is a stretch of basketball that does not go their way.

“We got to find a way to dig deep and be more of who we are,” Johnson said. “I think that goes back to stretches where we lose our way a little bit just from our identity.”

The Gophers managed to have a better second half against Iowa, scoring 54% from the field compared to 43% in the first half. 

Some of the adversity the Gophers faced isn’t entirely in their control. Hawkins suffered an ankle injury against Iowa but played through the second half before fouling out with just over a minute left to play. 

Hawkins did not see the court against Michigan State due to his ankle injury and the point guard role fell to Cam Christie and Mike Mitchell. The role became solely Mitchell’s after Christie fouled out in the second half.

Center Pharrel Payne played 15 minutes against Iowa and only scored three points, a sharp contrast from his performance three days prior against Indiana where he played 30 minutes and put up 17 points. After their Iowa matchup, Johnson couldn’t put his finger on the status of Payne’s health.

“I don’t know if he was cramping or what, but he wasn’t one hundred percent today,” Johnson said. “It hurts when he’s not out there.”

Payne was among the starters against Michigan State. He has averaged 9.6 points per game, shot 64% from the field and 39% at the free throw line.

Even when their opponent had momentum, the Gophers refused to let the score margin get higher than 12 against both Iowa and Michigan State. Forward Joshua Ola-Joseph attributes much of the team’s resilience to last season’s setbacks.

“If you saw what we’ve been through last year, we’ve been through a lot,” Ola-Joseph said. “So when we want to win, we’re desperate to win.”

Garcia said much of the team’s grit this season stemmed from their “Warrior Week” before the season. The week involved intense conditioning every morning beginning in the early hours of 5:30-6 a.m. On the last day of the week, the team spent the night at Williams Arena.

“I actually slept on the court and my air mattress deflated so I was sleeping on the hardwood throughout the night,” Garcia said. “I was pretty sore when I woke up to finish up that last day.”

Last season, the Gophers ended with a 2-17 conference record. They surpassed that win total this season when they defeated Maryland on Jan. 7.

While selection day is still a ways away, the Gophers will need to remember the feeling of winning with the remainder of conference play left.

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