Dawson Garcia's first Big Ten home game was shortened because of an ankle injury Wednesday, but his Gophers teammates had his back to get their first Big Ten win this season.
After having a breakout season so far, Garcia went scoreless in seven minutes after landing awkwardly in the first half Wednesday, but the Gophers erased a 17-point deficit in the first half to pull off a 76-65 comeback victory against Nebraska at Williams Arena.
"The response was unbelievable," said Gophers coach Ben Johnson, whose team had lost to Missouri, San Francisco and Ohio State with Garcia. "When we knew Dawson wasn't coming back, guys had to step up."
The Gophers (6-3, 1-1 Big Ten) outscored Nebraska 52-26 in the second half with five players scoring in double figures. Joshua Ola-Joseph had 13 of his team-high 15 points in the second half. Braeden Carrington and Pharrel Payne contributed 13 and 12 points, respectively. Elijah Hawkins finished with 12 points and a season-high 11 assists.
"Seeing him going out was definitely an energy drainer," Carrington said about Garcia. "But I feel like this win gives us a lot of confidence. We were playing great on offense and playing great on defense. We were firing on all cylinders."
Johnson has a deeper team than last season, but the Gophers have struggled to establish other scoring options besides Garcia before Wednesday. He ranked second in the Big Ten with 20.5 points after a career-high 36 points in Sunday's 84-74 loss at Ohio State.
The only other Gophers player averaging double figures entering Wednesday was freshman Cam Christie (11.0 points), who got his first start this season against Nebraska. The Gophers needed more than just one player to show up in Garcia's absence.
Trailing 42-29 early in the second half, the Gophers made their biggest move with a 13-0 run to tie the score. Mike Mitchell Jr, who had 12 points, nailed a three to give them their first lead since early in the first half, going up 47-44 near the 11-minute mark.
The Huskers, who were held to 1-for-10 shooting from the field to open the second half, were outscored 33-9 when Payne muscled in a layup for a 57-48 lead with 8:46 left. The Barn crowd energized the Gophers during that rally, spearheaded by seven consecutive points from Ola-Joseph, including an alley-oop dunk on a pass from Hawkins in transition.
It was a complete turnaround from how bleak the Gophers' night started.
"He was just telling us to keep a strong mindset," Hawkins said of Johnson. "We had to play defense and get rebounds to win the game. Offense would take care of itself."
Christie's three with 17:34 left in the first half gave the Gophers their first lead. But it was bittersweet with Garcia sidelined seconds earlier, rolling his ankle by landing on Payne's foot after a defensive rebound.
Garcia returned to the bench just under five minutes left in the first half. He even briefly took the court. The Huskers went into halftime with a 39-24 advantage, but the Gophers won for only the second time in 25 games the past two seasons when trailing at the half.
"Knock on wood, it's nothing significant," Johnson said about Garcia's injury. "We all feel for him."
After starting the season 7-0, Nebraska (7-2, 0-1 in the Big Ten) dropped its second consecutive game after being held to only 30% shooting in the second half. Brice Williams had a team-high 18 points, but he only scored one point in the second half. Keisei Tominaga, who averaged 15.5 points, had only four points on 0-for-5 shooting from the field.
Three losses in their previous four games against Nebraska in recent years was a sign of how far the Gophers had fallen in the Big Ten's pecking order. They opened 0-4 in Big Ten play last season, but Wednesday's effort could be a turning point.
"We have a chance to move the needle," Johnson said. "If we can make this a true homecourt advantage, nobody's going to want to play here."