For the second straight game, first-year Gophers coach Ben Johnson was pacing the sideline after a big lead evaporated, this time in Friday's 73-69 win vs. Western Kentucky.

A 16-point margin was cut to a basket with three seconds left. What happened next has been the standard so far for Johnson's squad: his veterans closed the game strong.

Seniors E.J. Stephens, Payton Willis, and Eric Curry combined to score the last 14 points of the game Friday, including two free throws from Stephens to secure a spot in Sunday's Asheville Championship final against Princeton.

"Guys showed a great resiliency, toughness, both mental and physical," Johnson said. "We have to play with that edge, we have to play with a chip on our shoulder, to play with that fight."

A 12-point lead trimmed to two late in the second half of Tuesday's 71-56 opening win against Missouri Kansas City, but the Gophers used a 17-4 run to seal Johnson's first win.

The Gophers have one of the oldest teams in college basketball. And that maturity shows up in crunch time. Minnesota's the second most experienced team (2.61 years) in the Big Ten and 19th nationally, according to

Six of Minnesota's 10 scholarship newcomers are senior transfers, including Luke Loewe, Sean Sutherlin, and Charlie Daniels. Sophomore Jamison Battle is the only non-senior in the seven-player rotation so far this year.

"They've been through it," said Battle, who led the Gophers with 20 points against Western Kentucky. "That's what I love about this team. We're experienced. We're veterans. We've been through hard times. You've seen it in the Kansas City game when they went on their run. You saw it here when the game got close."

Battle tested

Don't tell the Gophers they have a go-to guy yet on this team. They won't admit it. This group is too unselfish, but sophomore Jamison Battle is the closest thing after two games.

The 6-7 George Washington transfer and former DeLaSalle standout is averaging 19 points on 46.2% shooting from the field, including 38.1% from three-point range. He also had 24 points in the U's exhibition win against Concordia-St. Paul on Nov. 1.

Some say he's not even the best basketball player in the family. Battle's sister, Amaya, signed Wednesday with Gophers women's coach Lindsay Whalen to begin the national early signing period. The 5-11 Hopkins guard is ranked as a top-25 player in the 2022 class nationally.

Through two games, the Gophers aren't just relying on Battle for offense, especially in crunch time. Willis and Stephens average 16.0 points and 15.5 points, respectively. They combined for 22 points in the second half against Western Kentucky.

Center of attention

The Gophers have no inside presence this season that can hold his own against some of the big boys in the Big Ten, including Purdue's 7-4 Zach Eddy, Illinois' 7-foot, 290-pound Kofi Cockburn, and Michigan's 7-2 Hunter Dickinson.

Former Gophers 7-foot center Liam Robbins transferred to Vanderbilt after ranking second on the team in points (11.7), first in rebounds (6.6) and first in the Big Ten in blocks (2.7).

Robbins will be missed, but the Gophers have been filling the middle with Curry and Stephen F. Austin transfer Charlie Daniels. Curry, a sixth-year 6-9 senior, is finally fully healthy and it shows. He had his best game in years Friday with 11 points, seven rebounds, three assists and block in 31 minutes against a taller Western Kentucky frontcourt.

The Gophers might need help at some point from 6-11 freshman Treyton Thompson, but he hasn't played in the first two games.

Three-point improvement?

The Gophers shot a program-low 28.4% from three last season but were 46th nationally and second in the Big Ten with 25.2 attempts per game. They finished third in team history with 730 three-point attempts. That's a head-scratcher.

Former Gophers coach Richard Pitino thought he had a good shooting team but didn't have the numbers to back up that talk. Johnson actually does through two games.

After hitting 11 threes in the exhibition win over Concordia-St. Paul, the Gophers are shooting 20-for-53 (37.7%) from three this season, ranking fifth among Big Ten teams.,

Battle and Willis lead the way combining to shoot 14-for-36 (38.9%) this season. But Stephens came alive against Western Kentucky with 4-for-7 shooting from beyond the arc, including two clutch threes late in the second half.

Princeton will be the biggest challenge yet on the perimeter, though. The Tigers lead the Ivy League and rank 15th nationally in three-point defense (18.6%).


Time: 6:30 p.m. CT, Sunday. Where: Harrah's Cherokee Center. Line: Gophers 2.5-point favorite. Series: Gophers lead the series 3-0, including last meeting in 2004. TV: ESPN2. Online/Live video: WatchESPN Radio: 100.3 KFAN



Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Payton Willis 6-4 195 Sr. 16.0

G – E.J. Stephens 6-3 190 Sr. 15.5

G – Luke Loewe 6-4 190 Sr. 7.0

F – Jamison Battle 6-7 225 So. 19.0

F – Eric Curry 6-9 245 Sr. 9.0

Reserves– Sean Sutherlin, G/F, 6-5, Sr., 4.0 ppg; Charlie Daniels, C/F, 6-9, Sr., 1.5 ppg.

Coach: Ben Johnson 2-0 (1st season)

Notable: In his last game at the Barn last season, Curry was honored with Brandon Johnson and walk-on Hunt Conroy on Senior Day. Curry was hoping to pursue a graduate assistant coaching role after this season, but he was convinced to play a sixth season. And now he's the starting center for the Gophers, who are thin in the frontcourt … Junior forward Parker Fox (Northern State transfer) and Isaiah Ihnen are sidelined indefinitely after offseason knee surgeries. Fox, who tore his ACL and MCL in late March, could possibly make a full recovery by January.


Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Ethan Wright 6-4 190 Sr. 6.0

G – Jaelin Llewellyn 6-2 185 Sr. 9.0

F – Zach Martini 6-7 235 So. 6.5

F – Tosan Evbuomwan 6-8 215 Jr. 8.5

F – Drew Friberg 6-7 210 Sr. 6.5

Reserves – Ryan Langborg, G, 6-4, Jr., 11.0 ppg; Matt Allocco, G, 6-4, So., 2.0 ppg; Keeshawn Kellman, C, 6-9, Jr., 4.0 ppg; Max Johns, G, 6-4, Sr., 4.5 ppg.

Coach: Mitch Henderson 162-102 (10th season)

Notable: The Tigers are 3-2 against Big Ten opponents under Mitch Henderson, but their last win against the conference was 81-79 at Penn State on Dec. 14, 2013. Senior Jaelin Llewellyn led his team with 16 points and nine rebounds in a 66-62 victory against South Carolina in the second Asheville Championship semifinal Friday night. Llewellyn and Ryan Langborg combined for eight of the team's 11 three-pointers … Henderson had Gophers assistant Marcus Jenkins on his staff during his first four seasons with the Tigers from 2011-15.

Fuller's score prediction (Picks record 1-1): Gophers 68, Princeton 65.