Basketball is a game won in the second half — and in this regard, the Gophers men’s basketball team has it figured out.
Elsewhere, the team’s early-season struggles persisted in a 71-55 win Monday night at Williams Arena against South Dakota State.
For the second straight game, the Gophers started poorly and finished strong. They took a 32-30 lead into halftime, but trailed 44-39 five and a half minutes into the second half.
Then, using a 22-3 burst that lasted seven minutes, Minnesota took a 61-47 lead and played comfortably the rest of the way.
“We played the second half like we should have started off the game,” Trevor Mbakwe said. “We really picked it up and we were able to get some stops and press more. That was really key for us to get the lead and pull away.”
Mbakwe had three blocked shots during that stretch. He finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks on 6-for-7 shooting.
Mbakwe has been a second-half monster early in 2011. Through two exhibition games and two regular season games, he has averaged 12.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in the last 20 minutes.
The rest of the team has played well in spurts, but has lacked consistency. Ralph Sampson III (10 points) and Rodney Williams (7) each played more than 28 minutes, but both seemed to disappear from the offense at times.
Minnesota’s bench had its best game yet, scoring 27 points on 10-for-18 shooting. Oto Osenieks and Maverick Ahanmisi each made 3-pointers to ignite the team’s second-half surge, and Chip Armelin scored nine points in the first half.
The Gophers picked up their defensive intensity in the second half, and shut down Jackrabbits star Nate Wolters.
Wolters scored eight of SDSU’s first 10 points in the second half, but was held to two points in the last 16:27. During many of the Jackrabbits’ possessions in the second half, the Gophers denied him the ball and forced other SDSU players to create the offense.
“In the locker room, our coach just made a point to pressure the ball more,” Ahanmisi said. “We just wanted to pressure the ball as much as we could.”
Ahanmisi had eight points, two rebounds, three assists and a blocked shot — all of which came in the second half.
“I thought Maverick was the key to us turning it around offensively,” Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said.
Smith likened Ahanmisi’s crafty second-half play to that of Wolters. That’s high praise considering Wolters scored 32 points in SDSU’s season-opener and averaged 19.5 points last season.
Still, the Gophers were unable to dominate a Jackrabbits team that hadn’t beaten Minnesota in any of its 15 previous tries.
Minnesota had its best shooting night — 6-for-14 from 3-point range, and 27-for-47 from the floor overall — but lost the rebounding battle 37-33.
SDSU out-rebounded the Gophers 23-13 in the first half, and didn’t allow Minnesota a single offensive rebound.
"They were just crashing everybody,” Mbakwe said. “We weren't getting the long rebounds, and their guards were sneaking in. We just didn't do a good enough job of boxing out in the first half.
“Coach really challenged us at halftime, because we pride ourselves on rebounding, and there's no way we should have gotten out-rebounded like that in the first half or in the game."
Minnesota’s perimeter defense improved in the second half, but the team’s guard play remains a question mark.
Andre Hollins and Julian Welch — the team’s leading contenders for the point guard spot ahead of Ahanmisi — combined to shoot 2-for-7 with two assists, four turnovers, and five fouls.
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