This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno
We're less than 30 minutes from tipoff in Orlando between the Gophers and Dayton in the title game of the Old Spice Classic. Minnesota, of course, is trying to put the finishing touches on an early-season tournament championship for the second season in a row. Last year, the Gophers knocked off Western Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia to win the Puerto Rico Tip-Off title. Some pregame notes:
*From an overall tournament perspective, things have gone very well for Minnesota. Not only have the Gophers won their first two games so far to improve to 6-0 on the season, but the teams they defeated -- DePaul and Indiana State -- are each 2-0 in games here not against the Gophers. Indiana State has victories over Texas Tech and, in Sunday's third-place game, over Fairfield. DePaul, meanwhile, also defeated Texas Tech and followed that up with a win in the consolation final Sunday against Arizona State. Those might seem like small things right now, but remember them in February and March when RPI starts becoming a daily buzzword. It also means that even if DePaul and Indiana State aren't great teams in the grand scheme of things, the Gophers can feel good knowing they defeated two teams who otherwise didn't lose at this tournament.
*Excluding the Mount St. Mary's game, when the Gophers didn't need to turn on the jets in the second half after racing to a 51-18 lead at the break, Minnesota has been a different team in the final 20 minutes of games. Tubby Smith chalks it up to depth wearing teams down and his finding hot combinations down the stretch. The raw numbers are interesting: Outside of MSM, the Gophers are minus-8 in point differential in the first halves of games -- leading Bucknell and South Dakota State by 2 apiece and Fairfield by 5 while trailing DePaul by 10 and Indiana State by 7 at the break. In the second half of those five games, the Gophers are plus-54, having outscored four of the five opponents (including both at this tournament) by double-digits in the second half. We'll see if the Gophers follow a similar script tonight.
*There's no reason to anticipate any lineup changes tonight. Those of you who keep asking about Mo Walker -- he's on the trip, but he's still out indefinitely as he continues to recover from last year's knee injury.
*Dayton is certainly not to be taken lightly. The Flyers play in the Atlantic 10 and are 13-5 (including 7-1 in their past eight games) against men's hoops teams from BCS schools. They are 4-1 overall this season, and their lone loss was in overtime at Miami (Ohio). Four starters average in double-figures in points, led by 6-4 senior guard Paul Williams at 12.6. Of particular note: Williams is 14-for-27 on three-pointers this season, helping Dayton to a 43-for-119 (36.1 percent) performance from beyond the arc as a team. Minnesota has struggled to defend the three-pointer in the first halves of both tourney games here. Overall in six games, Gophers opponents have made 38 of 107 three-pointers this season (35.5 percent).
*Radio play-by-play man Mike Grimm has been up in the air more than George Clooney. He flew from the Twin Cities to Orlando for the start of the tournament, called the first two games on Thursday and Friday, flew back to Minneapolis to call the Gophers/Illinois game on Saturday, flew back to Orlando for Sunday's title game and of course will fly out of Orlando again when the tournament is over.
*I'll post something quick post-game and something fresh again tomorrow. After that, beat writer Amelia Rayno will be back on the scene and ready to dig in for the long haul. It's been fun interacting with you guys, and it should be another fun one tonight.
Tubby Smith is fond of saying he's more concerned with how a game finishes than how it starts. It's a nice motto to have this season -- and in particular the past two games -- as the Gophers have proven to be much better finishers than starters.
For the second game in a row, Minnesota erased a halftime deficit, this time defeating Indiana State 76-69 behind clutch play down the stretch from Chip Armelin, Julian Welch and a host of others.
Armelin had 13 off the bench, while Welch had a game-high 17 (easily his best as a Gopher). Andre Hollins added 16 points in just 19 minutes as he again battled foul trouble.
Minnesota trailed 58-49 with about 8 minutes remaining before closing the game on a 27-11 run.
And the bottom line is the Gophers only got 13 points from Trevor Mbakwe (9), Rodney Williams (3) and Ralph Sampson III (1) and still managed to win.
The big question: Welch has proven to be an excellent closer. At some point, should he be a starter? Or does Smith not mess with a good thing as the Gophers head into the Old Spice Classic title game on Sunday at 6 p.m.?
"I thought Julian had an outstanding game," Smith said postgame. "That was the difference in the game."
Just a few quick notes before tipoff between the Gophers and Indiana State in the semifinals of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando.
*Remember, the game is an 11 a.m. Minneapolis start on ESPN.
*Both teams are 5-0. It's hard to get a read on Indiana State, but it appears the Sycamores have very balanced scoring and can put the clamps down on defense. They were an NCAA tournament team a year ago, losing as a No. 14 seed in the first round to Syracuse.
*Rodney Williams had a career-high 18 points in an 86-85 thriller over DePaul on Thursday. Can he sustain his high level of play?
*Ralph Sampson III looked rusty and bothered by his ankle injury early yesterday, but he gave the Gophers 15 important minutes with eight points and four rebounds. What will he have to offer today?
*Can Andre Hollins rebound from an ineffective game? He's back starting at the point against Indiana State. No lineup changes -- Hollins, Austin Hollins, Trevor Mbakwe, Sampson and Williams.
It was exciting, if not pretty. It was both difficult and pleasing for fans to watch. In the end, the Gophers erased a double-digit second-half deficit and hung on to defeat DePaul 86-85 in the opening round of the Old Spice Classic on Thursday in Orlando. A few quick thoughts as I wait for post-game interviews:
*Rodney Williams was a beast. I had him down for four dunks. Most importantly, a couple of them were ferocious throw-downs in the flow of the offense. Williams also had the key put-back of a Julian Welch missed free throw that provided Minnesota with a very important cushion at 86-83 in the closing seconds. DePaul made a meaningless two-pointer after a missed three with under a second left to provide the final margin. Williams finished with 18 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals in 29 minutes.
*The crunch time lineup reflected who was playing best throughout the second half: Chip Armelin, Austin Hollins, Julian Welch, Trevor Mbakwe and Williams. Armelin had six big points; Welch had 11 points in 21 minutes after starter Andre Hollins sat out much of the game because of foul trouble/ineffectiveness (1-for-5 shooting, 3 fouls in 10 minutes); Mbakwe was his usual self with 16 points and 12 rebounds; Austin Hollins continued his recent steadiness by contributing 11 points in 26 minutes.
*DePaul made just 1 of 9 three pointers in the second half after going 5-for-10 in the first half. But DePaul did shoot 51.6 percent from the field from the game. That will concern Tubby Smith, as will the Gophers' 17 for 27 (63 percent) performance from the free throw line. Minnesota also had 17 turnovers in the game, though jus six after the break.
*Minnesota will face Indiana State at 11 a.m. (Minnesota time) on ESPN in Friday's semifinals.
*DePaul represents an upgrade in the Gophers' early schedule, but not by much. The Blue Demons might be in the Big East, but they were picked to finish 16th of 16 teams by conference coaches in the preseason. They were 7-24 last season, though they're 2-0 so far this year. One thing to watch is DePaul does seem to be getting good guard play and might test the Gophers' youngsters in that area. They also launch a lot of threes (51 in two games, making 22 of them).
*Ralph Sampson III is starting for the Gophers. He didn't do contact drills in practice Wednesday and didn't play Monday against Mount St. Mary's, but apparently he has healed enough from a rolled ankle to give it a go today. We'll see how much he has to offer.
*Indiana State upended Texas Tech in the tournament opener. Minnesota will face Indiana State at 11 a.m. (central) on Friday if the Gophers win today; otherwise, it's a 1:30 p.m. game against Texas Tech if they lose. The early game would be on ESPN; the later game would be on ESPNU.
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