Nolen's absence all too apparent in Minnesota's first loss

  • Article by: MYRON P. MEDCALF , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2010 - 1:06 PM

Without their senior stopper, the Gophers couldn't slow down the Cavs, who turned a 13-point deficit into a 8-point victory.

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When the Gophers needed a stop, they couldn't go to their best defender.

Hindered by a foot injury, Al Nolen wore a suit on the sideline during Virginia's 87-79 upset on Monday night as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at Williams Arena, handing Tubby Smith his first home nonconference loss in four seasons coaching the Gophers.

"It's really tough," said Blake Hoffarber, who led the 15th-ranked Gophers with 19 points. "[Nolen is] one of the best defenders in the country. I think we missed that tonight. Hopefully, he can get back soon. Anytime you're missing your point guard, it's going to be tough on a team."

Nolen's absence turned a previously spotty perimeter defense into an open field.

Behind 10-for-13 shooting from the three-point line, the Cavaliers (4-3) went from trailing 42-29 with 19 minutes, 37 seconds to play to up 68-54 some 14 minutes later -- a 27-point swing in a game that Smith called "a complete defensive breakdown."

Without Nolen on the floor when Virginia hacked at their lead, the Gophers (6-1) tried to get back into the game with hurried threes. They might have forgotten they were ninth in the Big Ten in three-point shooting entering Monday's game, when they took 22 attempts and missed 13.

"Certainly when you lose a leader, a point guard, a senior ... you know he kind of steadies the ship," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "I know that was a loss for them."

With a carefree pace established by alley-oops, behind-the-back passes and rim-shaking dunks, the Gophers looked at ease on their way to 22-9 run to open the game. They held leads of 24-12, 36-26 and 39-29 with a 57.7 percent shooting clip before halftime in a game played in front of an announced crowd of 12,089.

Junior guard Devoe Joseph, who made his first appearance this season after missing his team's first six games because of a rules violation, finished with 16 points, and Trevor Mbakwe recorded a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds.

But Virginia casually exposed the home team's lingering weaknesses throughout the contest. Three-pointers kept the Cavaliers in the game, as they hit nine of their first 11 attempts.

The Gophers continue to struggle with defending the three-point line under Smith. They were sixth in the Big Ten in three-point defense his first season (33.6 percent allowed), ninth (35.1 percent) in his second season and seventh (34.1 percent) in his third season. They entered Monday's game in ninth place, after their first six opponents hit 33.9 percent of their three-pointers.

Perhaps Smith would have put a healthy Nolen on Mustapha Farrakan, who scored 14 of his 23 points in the final 9:28 of the first half. That stretch gave the Cavaliers -- a squad that Washington beat by 43 points a week ago at the Maui Invitational -- enough hope to keep fighting in the second half.

Maybe it wouldn't have mattered. The Gophers didn't have an answer for Virginia's inside-outside tandem of Mike Scott (17 points, 12 rebounds) and Joe Harris (game-high 24 points, 4-for-6 from three-point line).

"It was probably as pathetic an effort defensively we've had in a long time," Smith said. "A lot of it had to do with Virginia."

Late in the second half, the Gophers launched a final comeback attempt. Down 13 with 4:54 remaining, they cut their deficit to six points, when Virginia led 73-67 with 1:59 to play.

That run might have turned the game, but the Big Ten's worst free-throw shooting team shot 8-for-14 from the charity stripe in the second half, while Virginia went 22-for-26 in the half and 25-for-30 for the game.

The Gophers will have to find a way to go forward without Nolen, who could miss two weeks or more.

"We don't have anyone at the point of attack that's pressuring the ball and creating havoc," Smith said.

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    Up next: 7 p.m. Saturday vs. Cornell Williams Arena • TV: BTN (830-AM)

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