Gophers find their mark, catch Bucknell near finish

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 12, 2011 - 9:46 AM

Tubby Smith's squad once again struggled with its shooting until late in the game, when it went on a run to secure the season opener.

When the shots finally started falling Friday night, the Gophers salvaged their season opener and at last looked like a team capable of holding its own in the Big Ten.

Twenty points in the final five minutes of the regular-season opener was an eye-opener, a level of play the Gophers never showed in two exhibition games or in most of their 70-58 victory against Bucknell.

With six minutes remaining, Cameron Ayers hit Bucknell's third consecutive three-pointer to put it up by five points. It was a flurry of shooting the Gophers didn't seem capable of matching or stopping.

But this time, when it mattered, the Gophers responded. Austin Hollins hit a three-pointer, just the Gophers' third successful three of the night. Trevor Mbakwe was again a monster down the stretch, finishing with 17 points and 10 rebounds.

"I think the main thing was keeping confidence up," Austin Hollins said. "In the locker room, we just stressed, 'Just keep shooting the ball, it will come. In the second half, it will come.' "

The offense did, but the defense came first.

After the Bucknell barrage, the Gophers clamped down and shut down the Bison shooters, the same way they had shut down star center Mike Muscala all night. The former Roseville star finished with just 12 points but did grab 11 rebounds.

Bucknell made just 22.7 percent of its attempts in the second half -- it made 45.8 percent in the first -- and it was Julian Welch who led the defensive stand.

Bryson Johnson -- who led the Bison with 16 points and had four three-pointers -- was shut down from the outside for the last five minutes. Welch led the defensive drive with two steals in the first half, but with the game on the line the Gophers grabbed three more and started to work better in transition.

Then the Gophers went on a 20-4 run, during which Mbakwe had seven points and Hollins had six and a key steal.

"The last five minutes we were down, we all looked at each other and we knew it was go time," said Mbakwe. "We didn't want this game to be like how last season went."

Last season, the Gophers crumbled late in tight games. Friday, the defensive intensity transitioned into offensive.

Poor shooting was the familiar problem early. Bucknell gave the Gophers the same perimeter challenges they faced in their first two exhibition games, and when Ayers hit Bucknell's third three-pointer, it seemed those shooting woes would finally do in the Gophers. While the Bison scored in bunches, the Gophers hit just one of eight three-point attempts in the first half, went 2-for-4 from the free-throw line and missed routine layups and inside shots. They finished just 3-for-15 on threes.

"We need to start knocking down some of those shots," coach Tubby Smith said. "... They've got to keep shooting. There's nothing you can do but just keep shooting. And that's when it started going in for us."

When it did, they rolled. Under pressure, the Gophers finished on a high not yet seen in the young season.

"When he hit that three, we got the crowd behind us," Mbakwe said. "And they were great for us, they were real loud and when he hit that. It was kind of a relief, like OK, we're back in it and we can make a run at it."

  • related content

  • Postgame: Gophers ride strong finish to first win of the season

    Saturday November 12, 2011

    Minnesota struggled with some of the same mistakes, but pulled it together on defense and a hot finale.

  • Gophers-Bucknell boxscore

    Saturday November 12, 2011

  • Gophers Julian Welch knocked the ball away from Bucknell's Cameron Ayers on Friday.

  • Trevor Mbakwe (32) went up for a field goal against Bucknell's Mike Muscala on Friday.

  • GOPHERS 70, BUCKNELL 58

    Up next: 7 p.m. Monday vs. South Dakota State at Williams Arena • No TV (1500ESPN)

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