TALLAHASSEE, FLA. - The Gophers have said all summer they would be a basketball team to be reckoned with.
Now, four weeks into the season, some of those expectations are being put to the test -- and the Gophers are passing.
Fresh off a Bahamas trip that featured three consecutive battles in as many days, the Gophers flew directly to Tallahassee and outdid defense-minded Florida State at its own game, notching a 77-68 victory Tuesday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Joe Coleman and Rodney Williams stymied a second-half Seminoles surge with six points each for the Gophers (7-1) in the final five minutes, but the decisive factors were two staples that have led them to this point in the season: tough defense and a balanced, varied offense.
Coleman led the team with 16 points, six rebounds and only two turnovers, but Williams (14), Austin Hollins (13) and Andre Hollins (12) all contributed double digits in points. The lone starter who didn't reach double figures in points, Elliott Eliason, got there in rebounds (10).
"One night it could be Elliott, one night it could be Trev [Mbakwe], one night it could be Rodney," Coleman said. "That's the good thing about a team like us -- we don't have one set player that's going to go off every night, so teams can't really focus in on that."
The Gophers didn't come out hot, yet they jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead. Even with Mbakwe playing only five scoreless minutes in the first half, Minnesota stifled the Seminoles on defense and on the boards (taking a 21-16 rebounding advantage in the first half). By the break, the Gophers were thriving off four three-pointers against the discombobulated Seminoles and their halftime edge swelled to 38-25.
In the second half, the Seminoles -- who received a buoyant second-half performance from Terrance Shannon (14 points, 11 rebounds) off the bench -- began breaking through the Gophers' scheme and supplied some tightened defense of their own. With the Gophers leading by 21 at 58-37 with 10 minutes, 7 seconds left in the game, Florida State started getting to the line and went on a 14-3 run that included eight free-throw opportunities and cut the margin to 61-51 with 5:44 remaining.
But the Gophers finished strong while the Seminoles -- who made only 37.9 percent of their shots from the field -- tried in vain to get over the hump they'd faced all game.
"The last couple of years when a team responded, we would kind of die down," Mbakwe said. "This year, we're able to pick up on the teams that make the runs or fight back. And that's been helping us out the last few games."
No one would blame the Gophers, with a schedule of four games in six days, if they'd played tired -- in fact, many expected it. But credit the team's excellent conditioning and heart as another improvement from a year ago.
At this point -- with the Gophers rolling off three consecutive impressive victories and a No. 21 ranking in Monday's Associated Press poll -- good feelings are flying high and comparisons to a year ago are becoming more and more irrelevant.
The truth is, this squad still has plenty to learn. But after notching another big victory Tuesday, they cleared another hurdle and answered another question about the depth of their strengths.
"We've been on the road a long time," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "We knew we'd have to play well, and I thought tonight we really stepped up. It really showed we had competed against some good competition. You never know until you play the next game just how much your team is improving, but tonight I thought we took another step in the right direction."