Eastern Kentucky brought the snow to Minneapolis on Saturday, and because of an ice-cold start by the Minnesota men’s basketball team, the Colonels brought a scare to Williams Arena for much of the first half.
But like Saturday’s blizzard, Eastern Kentucky’s tormenting eventually let up and the Gophers plowed through the mid-major opponent, 71-58.
Trailing by nine with 6:51 left in the first half, the Gophers (9-1) went on a 12-0 run and ended the half on a 15-3 stretch.
Eastern Kentucky’s Justin Stommes’ three-pointer with six seconds left ended the Gophers’ run and tied the score at 25-25, but freshman guard Maverick Ahanmisi hit a half-court heave as time expired to give Minnesota a three-point lead and a clear momentum boost.
No. 22 Minnesota then scored the first 15 points of the second half before coasting to an easy win. All totaled, the Gophers went on a 30-3 run covering 16:45 between the two halves. A strong defensive effort caused the Colonels (5-5) to miss their first 10 shots of the second half, and they shot only 35.8 percent for the game.
“That stretch of defense in the second half was one of the best stretches of defense that we’ve had of effort and intensity this year,” Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. “That gets me fired up. That makes me happy when I see that type of play.”
Watching Ralph Sampson break out of a recent offensive slump also excited Smith. The junior center has averaged only eight points per contest since scoring 22 against Western Kentucky on Nov. 18, part of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. On Saturday, Sampson scored 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds, both team highs.
“Today I was just trying to have fun,” Sampson said. “There’s a blizzard outside so we’re stuck in here for a little bit, so I might as well just try to have fun with it.”
Sampson, who hasn’t been able to put a finger on his recent struggles, was a perfect 6-for-6 from the field and went 7-for-8 from the free-throw line.
“Ralph was outstanding today,” Smith said. “If we can get that out of him every day we’ll be a very good team.”
Minnesota’s two nagging issues, free-throw shooting and turnovers, were still present. They finished just 12-of-22 from the line and committed 16 turnovers, one of the main reasons the Colonels were in the game at all.
“We’ve got to find somebody who can handle the ball better,” Smith said.
Senior point guard Al Nolen missed his fourth game in row with a foot injury, putting the ball in less experienced hands. Smith said Nolen will try to do something more than biking in practice Monday and will wear a specially made orthopedic device to gauge how his foot is progressing.
Guards Blake Hoffarber, Devoe Joseph and Ahanmisi accounted for eight of the Gophers’ 11 turnovers in the first half, many of which came on sloppy passes forced by the Colonels’ 1-3-1 zone.
The three guards — and the rest of the team — made drastic improvements in the second half. Minnesota had just five second-half turnovers, only one of which came from that trio of guards.
By playing better defense, the Gophers forced the Colonels to play more man-to-man because they couldn’t set up their unorthodox defense in transition. The second-half effort should help Minnesota for when they face Michigan and Northwestern, two Big Ten teams that play a 1-3-1.
“Coach was just emphasizing shutting them down,” said Hoffarber, who finished with 14 points, six assists and three steals. “Our offense wasn’t really clicking, so you’re going to win the game playing defense.”
The Gophers also struggled with rebounding early in the game, losing the first-half battle on the glass, 17-16. However, Minnesota progressed in that category as well by grabbing 21 boards compared to Eastern Kentucky’s 11 in the second half.
Forward Trevor Mbakwe continued his solid play, though it may have been an off day by his standards. The junior finished with 14 points and five rebounds, his lowest total on the boards this season, but kept the team’s energy up with four of his six field goals coming on dunks.
“When one guy’s doing well and getting a monster dunk or a monster rebound it kind of makes everyone … start having fun,” Hoffarber said. “It’s a fun game to play.”
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