Tubby Smith loves to play golf, so he knows there are no pictures on the scorecard.
His No. 21 Minnesota men’s basketball team is lucky the same idea holds true on the hardwood.
After shooting an ugly 27.8 percent in the first half, the Gophers overcame a 32-27 deficit by hitting 62.5 percent after the break and used a 23-7 run midway through the second half to pull away from Akron, winning 66-58 at Williams Arena.
Tough defense by Minnesota also forced Akron to take more outside shots in the second half, and the Zips converted only 25 percent of their field goals after the break.
“I thought our kids bounced back in the second half and responded the right way,” Smith said. “I don’t know why we’re coming out slow, and not attacking the way we should. When you’re missing easy shots it’s kind of contagious.”
Minnesota (10-1) out-rebounded the Zips 48-36, but only led by more than two after the 10:52 mark in the second half. The Gophers grabbed 17 offensive rebounds in the first half, yet trailed 32-27 because Smith said they were taking lazy shot attempts.
In the second half, Trevor Mbakwe went 5-for-5 from the field and grabbed eight rebounds, finishing with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Sophomore wing Rodney Williams posted 12 points and a career-high 10 rebounds for the first double-double of his career.
The two forwards each had two blocks as well, helping the Gophers to 10 total rejections on the night.
“I think this has been my best all-around game,” said Williams, who dunked on five of his six made field goals. “I think it’s because I came out to practice the past couple days with a different mentality to just work hard every minute I was out there, so I did that in practice and it carried over to the game.”
Smith was impressed with Williams’ play and attributes the improvement to his better shot selection. Two more misses Wednesday makes Williams just 2-of-16 from three-point range this season, but he attacked the rim more in Wednesday’s game, pleasing his coach in the process.
“I think he’s starting to understand, ‘This is how I’m going to help the team. This is where I can be beneficial,’” Smith said of Williams’ inside presence.
Blake Hoffarber kept the Gophers in the game early with nine first-half points and made history along the way. With 5:16 left in the first half, Hoffarber hit a free throw to join Minnesota’s 1,000-point club. After finishing with 13 points, Hoffarber is tied with Jim Brewer (1970-73) for 33rd all time with 1,009 career points.
Hoffarber also had a game-high seven assists compared to just two turnovers. Meanwhile, point guard Devoe Joseph had five turnovers to just three assists, further illustrating that the Gophers miss Al Nolen.
Luckily for them, Smith sounds confident the senior guard will return from a foot injury on Dec. 23 when Minnesota hosts South Dakota State.
“We’re going to bust him pretty good the next few days,” Smith said.
Bringing back Nolen in the final nonconference game will give him a chance to get his legs back, Smith said, before the Gophers open Big Ten play at Wisconsin five days later.
Even when Nolen comes back, the Gophers will still have some flaws, and none are more apparent than the slow starts and free-throw shooting.
“Free throws make me want to quit basketball,” said Mbakwe, who went just 3-for-7 from the line Wednesday. As a team, the Gophers entered the Akron game 10th in the Big Ten in free-throw percentage and hit only 12-of-22 in the victory.
Minnesota has held a halftime lead of more than three points only once in its last four games (10 points at St. Joe’s), and those slow starts could doom the Gophers in conference play.
“The Big Ten is no cupcake,” Mbakwe said. “If you come out like this in the Big Ten, you’ll be down 10.”
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