Picking up the pieces, Minnesota wins first Big Ten game

  • Article by: MYRON P. MEDCALF , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 5, 2011 - 7:07 AM

A Rodney Williams dunk sparked the Gophers, who were reeling from Devoe Joseph's decision to leave the team.

At Williams Arena in a game between the Gophers and the Hoosiers, Rodney Williams makes a spectacular breakaway dunk in the second half.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Dml - Star Tribune

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Late in the second half of the Gophers' 67-63 victory over Indiana on Tuesday night, Rodney Williams drove left.

Seriously, he put the ball on the floor, dribbled toward the bucket -- a rare sight throughout the sophomore forward's career-- and finished the sequence by nearly taking one of the Williams Arena rims off its hinges.

Williams, whose slams often end up on SportsCenter's Top Plays, and senior guard Al Nolen debated that particular dunk's ferocity after the game.

"I don't feel that one was that nasty," said Williams, who shot 6-for-10 from the field and scored 12 points.

Nolen, who served as a leader in the team's first game without departed combo guard Devoe Joseph, disagreed.

"I think it was one of the better dunks and the type of situation we were in, it really gave us a boost," said Nolen, who finished with 14 points, six rebounds, four assists, four steals and two turnovers.

Junior forward Trevor Mbakwe recorded his ninth double-double of the season (11 points, 16 rebounds) and senior guard Blake Hoffarber finished with a team-high 16 points.

But Williams' second-half highlights lifted the emotionally drained Gophers team (12-3, 1-2 Big Ten) still grieving after Joseph decided to leave the program Tuesday.

"It was a real tough win for us, one we needed," Tubby Smith said. "A lot of distractions we've had especially of late with Devoe Joseph leaving the team. You always wonder about how your team is going to respond, but I thought our team came ready to play."

To compensate for the loss of Joseph, who averaged 11.3 points per game and led the Gophers to their first Big Ten tournament title game in March, the Gophers will need players to fill gaps on both ends of the court.

Williams, a former Cooper star, scored eight consecutive points as the Gophers took a 40-38 lead with 13 minutes, 42 seconds to play, the team's first advantage in nearly 10 minutes. The Gophers seized a 20-13 edge with just under six minutes remaining in the first half, but the Hoosiers (9-7, 0-3) entered the break on a 19-6 run.

Williams' high-profile monster slam with 5:12 left in the game energized the Barn's non-sellout crowd of 12,727, and gave the Gophers a 59-51 advantage.

"It energizes you because he's physical and it kind of demoralizes the opponent if you're going in and you have a spectacular play at the basket," Smith said.

But the Gophers needed 40 minutes to get rid of a pesky Hoosiers team that split their series with the Gophers last season.

Nolen made one of two free throws to give the Gophers a 64-57 advantage with 24 seconds to go. But Maurice Creek hit a three-pointer to cut the Gophers' edge to four points with 17 seconds to go.

Ralph Sampson III made one of his two free throws, and Verdell Jones III knocked down a three-pointer on the other end with seven seconds to play. Leading 65-63, the Gophers nearly lost the ball on the in-bounds. But Hoffarber drew a foul and hit both free throws to establish the final score.

Williams said the team's second-half push was based on their desire to avoid an 0-3 start in Big Ten play.

"Starting 0-3 in the Big Ten, it's going to be tough to get out of that hole," Williams said. "I think everybody just knew coming out in the second half we were going to have to fight to get this W."

But life without Joseph will be tough, players said.

Two weeks ago, they lost Mo Walker to a season-ending knee injury. And now they're dealing with the loss of Joseph.

"Devoe's definitely going to be missed," Nolen said. "I miss him already just not being around. I think it's just going to take a team effort to replace Devoe. I think a lot of guys did step up tonight."


    Up next: 1 p.m. Sunday at No. 2 Ohio State • Value City Arena • TV: Big Ten Network (830-AM)

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