Gophers basketball slow early, but lights out late

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 2, 2012 - 4:20 PM

Off to a sluggish start, the Gophers got a lift from Trevor Mbakwe and Austin Hollins in their return home.

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The change in confidence from a year ago is palpable.

Now, when the Gophers get behind early -- in place of the panic that sometimes settled over the roster last season -- this team finds fight.

Back at their home court Saturday, the Gophers turned around an ugly start to convincingly win their fourth consecutive game, getting a season-high points total along with season highs in blocks and steals in a 87-59 victory over North Florida before an announced crowd of 10,173 at Williams Arena.

Shrugging off a sluggish beginning, the No. 21 Gophers (8-1) got double-digit points from four players and a big lift from both Trevor Mbakwe and Austin Hollins in the first half to get the team on track.

"The first five came out starting the game real flat, so we've got to give a lot of credit to our second five who came in and showed us the intensity that we needed," said Rodney Williams, who had a strong second half for the Gophers and finished with a team-high 14 points and eight rebounds.

Mbakwe set the tone off the bench with his strong post play and 11 points, and when Hollins returned, he picked up the groove from there.

With 7:51 left in the first half and the Gophers trailing 21-19 as they battled back from their slowest start of the year, Hollins (12 points, six rebounds) scored consecutive baskets to give Minnesota its first lead since 6-4.

First, the junior grabbed a wayward shot from Joe Coleman for a vicious, two-handed putback that will surely be repeated in highlight reels. Two possessions later, he stripped the ball from Parker Smith and returned the steal for a layup, reversing the momentum, and turning a burst of energy into a 20-6 run to end the first half.

"I think he took it upon himself to be more aggressive. He saw we were struggling," coach Tubby Smith said. "Austin is a very talented player. He's a young man who's capable of doing that."

The Gophers dominated on the boards (a 48-35 rebounding advantage) and had the game wrapped up early in the second half despite going 1-for-13 from three-point range. The Ospreys (3-5), in comparison, made seven threes.

Once again, the Gophers survived on their signature tough defense after the first 10 minutes, recording 15 steals and 13 blocked shots.

"You can tell by the difference in the first four minutes and the rest of the game," center Elliott Eliason said. "When we're blocking shots and getting after steals, we're a lot tougher, we're going to beat a lot more opponents."

The Gophers were lethargic at the start. Coming off a stretch of four games away from home over six days against tough opponents, they looked off-kilter against the Ospreys' 2-3 zone, and allowed a small, quick North Florida lineup to build an 18-10 lead on easy layups.

But midway through the first half, the Gophers tightened up on both ends, getting better ball movement and pressuring the Ospreys into poor passes and silly mistakes -- cashing them in for 31 points -- as they built a 37-27 halftime lead.

It has helped having Mbakwe as the centerpiece to the second group. "I think it is a spark, Trevor coming off the bench," Hollins said. "He'd do good in the starting lineup, don't get me wrong, but coming off the bench, he's doing a great job too."

Overall this year, there's more of a noticeable resolution -- rather than a fear of losing -- that kicks in the Gophers' killer instinct.

"If we do get down, yeah, that's the mentality with the team that we have, that we'll be able to come back," Austin Hollins said.

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