U's Coleman channels confidence

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 18, 2013 - 12:43 AM

 Clutch free throws vs. Wisconsin tapped the Gophers guard's take-charge mindset.

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Minnesota's Joe Coleman.

Photo: Genevieve Ross, Associated Press

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Joe Coleman stepped to the line, took a deep breath, spun the ball in his hands, dribbled twice and spun the ball again. He was channeling the Coleman of last year.

"I thought, 'I'm used to this. I've been in clutch situations,' " the sophomore guard said. " 'You can do this, don't worry. Just shoot them like you normally shoot them.' "

The first free throw rattled around the iron initially and the second one fell easier, but both went through, sending the Gophers to overtime Thursday against Wisconsin. It was a game they eventually won, ending their two-game skid and lifting a sullen team, at least briefly, out of a slump.

Perhaps it was just as meaningful for Coleman -- a player in almost as great a need of a turnaround, and one whom the Gophers will need down the stretch, starting Sunday at Iowa.

But the boost, both for Minnesota and Coleman -- who seemed as relaxed as ever afterward, making jokes and grinning as he sat near his locker -- nearly didn't come. The guard, who coach Tubby Smith had considered taking out of the lineup a day earlier, had been lackluster offensively, scoring only four points through 36 minutes. A mental mistake by Wisconsin's Mike Bruesewitz gave the Gophers the ball with 22.6 seconds left, and when the original play drawn up Minnesota broke down, Coleman ad-libbed, driving to the basket and getting the foul.

From there, his muscle memory took over.

"He went up there a young kid in a big environment like this and he stepped up big and made two of probably the most clutch free throws in his career so far," senior forward Rodney Williams said.

Coleman has been that catalyst before. He sank two huge free throws at the end of a victory last season at Indiana. He played himself into the starting lineup down the stretch a year ago with his aggressiveness and execution. He was a major factor during nonconference play this year, scoring in double digits in eight of 13 games, and scored a career-high 29 points in the Gophers' victory at Illinois.

In fact, when Coleman has been on, Minnesota has been very good -- 10-1 when he's scored in double figures.

But in the past eight games, Coleman has averaged only 6.5 points -- with the real outlier being 12 points in a home victory against Iowa.

When Smith sat down with the former Hopkins star on Wednesday, he reminded him of those earlier moments, and the ways Coleman has made his mark -- cutting to the basket, scoring around the rim, using his athleticism to scoop rebounds.

"We talked to him [Wednesday and Thursday] about reminiscing about the great game he had at Illinois and trying to duplicate that," Smith said. "I had just told him before in the last timeout -- make sure you attack the basket, don't be passive. Be aggressive."

Coleman's renewed aggressiveness was evident. He grabbed seven rebounds, the most he's managed in six games, and had the ball in the paint four times (getting to the line in three of those situations) after doing so only three times in the previous three games. At the same time, his shot selection was much more deliberate (he went 1-for-2 from the field after going 1-for-8 overall and 0-for-2 from three-point range in the last game, a loss to Illinois).

That all-around performance gave him the confidence that led him to attack the basket in the Gophers' final possession, and the poise to make the shots his team needed most.

"When it came down to those clutch free throws, I knew I had it," he said. "I had put in all the work for it, so I've got to make them."

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