If Gophers coach Ben Johnson could pick one thing to become his team's identity as it pushes for an NCAA men's basketball tournament bid this season, it would be defense. There have been glimpses of evidence.

When the Gophers reeled off a three-game winning streak earlier this month, Penn State, Northwestern and Michigan State combined to shoot only 34% from the field in the second half (plus overtime vs. the Wildcats).

In close losses at Iowa and Purdue, the Gophers led at halftime in both games after holding those two high-scoring opponents to a combined 40% shooting in the first halves.

On Sunday, the Gophers held Rutgers to 25% field-goal shooting in the second half in the 81-70 win at home.

The Gophers (16-9, 7-7 Big Ten), who host Ohio State on Thursday, rank fifth in scoring defense (72.8) in Big Ten games and have their best defensive efficiency ranking (70th nationally) in three years. But they're still waiting to put a full game together.

"We won [against Rutgers] because guys said it's not going to be another Iowa or Purdue," Johnson said. "It's not going to be an offensive-dictated game. We had enough points scored, so we had to get stops."

The Scarlet Knights weren't stopped much in the first half Sunday, shooting 53% from the field, which included 26 points in the paint. Cliff Omoruyi also had 13 points and six rebounds at the break.

The first step for the U's defense Sunday was to make it tough on Omoruyi, who ended up with only six points and no field goals in the second half. Jeremiah Williams, who averaged 14 points during Rutgers' four-game winning streak, was also held to six points on 1-for-7 shooting after halftime.

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The Gophers primarily used backup guard Braeden Carrington to keep Williams from driving to the basket, but it was a team effort to shut down the Scarlet Knights.

"We really took pride in defense in the second half and getting key stops," point guard Elijah Hawkins said.

Hawkins, Mike Mitchell Jr. and Cam Christie will be responsible to get the Gophers off to a strong start defensively on the perimeter Thursday. Ohio State's Bruce Thornton, Roddy Gayle Jr., and ex-Gopher Jamison Battle combined for 67 points in the U's 84-74 loss in Columbus on Dec. 3.

Johnson pointed out the Gophers' ball screen coverage has improved drastically since then in Big Ten play. Opposing offenses are being forced more to take mid-range shots instead of getting into the paint.

"I thought we just took a step defensively," Johnson said about the victory over Rutgers. "We talked at halftime. We needed to do what we do better and harder. With more intensity and more urgency."

Staying out of foul trouble has been an emphasis for the Gophers, who want to play aggressive defense without fouling. Four of the five current starters have fouled out in Big Ten games.

Hawkins has fouled out in four Big Ten games. Dawson Garcia and Pharrel Payne both fouled out at Purdue, but they combined for only three fouls against Rutgers.

Payne had his best offensive game Sunday with a career-high 21 points and 11 rebounds, but his ability to remain on the floor to protect the rim and contest shots made Minnesota's defense formidable.

"One thing I think we're working on as a team is to perfect our defense," Payne said. "When we can sit down and guard, it gives us a good chance at winning the game."