Gophers go right to work under new coach

  • Article by: MYRON P. MEDCALF , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 11, 2007 - 12:07 AM

The victory was no classic, but the effort on the floor revived a buzz at the Barn.

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Minnesota coach Tubby Smith yelled instructions to Damian Johnson after Johnson hit a three-point shot against Army during the first half at Williams Arena Saturday

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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It all felt fresh Saturday. The "Tubby Time" T-shirts. An excited Gophers crowd. And a hard-nosed performance by a men's basketball team that is expected to outdo last season's 9-22 finish with the help of a new coach.

With seven minutes left and their team leading by 33 points, three Gophers dived to the floor in a battle for a loose ball. That scrappy defensive effort defined the first game -- an 84-52 victory -- of Tubby Smith's tenure.

The Barn is no Rupp Arena, the venue Smith coached in the past 10 seasons at Kentucky, but he was impressed with the atmosphere at Williams Arena.

"We've got a great group of fans," he said. "Obviously, I'm excited to have a band; we've got a great pep band and our student body, I know they'll be filling up over there.

"They're excited, and not just them but everyone in the building."

The Gophers caused 25 turnovers, blocked 10 shots and had 13 steals, holding Army to 35.2 percent shooting from the floor.

"We got after it pretty good defensively," Smith said. "I thought our guys were very focused and very aggressive with their active hands, getting deflections."

Smith said he won at Kentucky by divvying up the scoring load. With 10 minutes to go in the game, Lawrence McKenzie, last season's leading scorer, sank his first points of the game. Every Gopher who played Saturday scored, with senior Dan Coleman leading all scorers with 16 points.

Surprise standout Damian Johnson added 12 points and four blocks.

Smith had some concerns about Army's leading scorer, Jarell Brown, going into the game, but the senior who averaged 17 points last season was held to five, in 21 minutes.

Smith has demanded tough defense in every preseason practice and exhibition game. The Gophers made few mistakes on defense Saturday, forcing 13 Army turnovers in the first half while building a 42-26 lead.

With five minutes remaining in the second half, Army guard Marcus Nelson took the ball from the top the key and drove hard to the lane and put up a shot that Gophers center Jon Williams blocked into the student section. That's the way things went for Army for the entire game.

Smith's teams had scored no fewer than 81 points in his debuts at Tulsa, Georgia and Kentucky, winning two out of three. He cracked the 80-point barrier again Saturday, as the Gophers shot 43.5 percent.

Throughout the game, Smith maintained his legendary level of intensity. Although the Gophers led by 19 in the first half, Smith jumped up and called timeout because the Gophers weren't moving on offense the way he wanted them to.

The Gophers hope to build momentum early and not face some of the early pitfalls they endured last season. After winning their first two games, the Gophers went on a five-game losing streak that led to the firing of former head coach Dan Monson.

They'll have to remain fresh until Nov. 20 when they take on Iowa State in Ames, Iowa.

McKenzie said this year's Gophers squad is an underestimated team that proved Saturday it has the talent to play competitive basketball.

He also said he was not concerned that he scored only two points, an output that he said had nothing to do with a groin injury he suffered last week.

"We focused on the defense, and that brought offense," he said. "As you can see, our scoring was spread out. It's not really one guy that needs to score all the points and be a go-to guy when you have a team like this and when you play this type of defense at this type of pace."

  • GOPHERS 84, ARMY 52

    Up next: at Iowa State • 7 p.m. Nov. 20 • Hilton Coliseum, Ames, Iowa • No TV • 830-AM

    PATRICK REUSSE

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