After Monday's 67-57 loss at Virginia Tech, Ben Johnson struggled to find positives for his Gophers basketball team other than how it managed not to quit — again.
For the second straight game, the Gophers (4-3) were down 20 points in the second half but outplayed their opponent in the last few minutes to keep from getting embarrassed.
Last week they were trailing by 22 points before falling 71-62 against UNLV in the SoCal Challenge championship in California. The Gophers were down 63-43 against the Hokies before finishing on a 14-4 run in the last two minutes.
"We used so much energy trying to get back into the game," Johnson said on the postgame radio show. "I appreciate the battle and the fight in the second half. I thought with the young guys the effort is there. We just got to look at the film and figure out where we can help these guys."
The Gophers' schedule only gets more grueling on Sunday at No. 5 Purdue to open early Big Ten play. Here are four takeaways from their final Big Ten/ACC Challenge game Monday:
Garcia and Battle
Dawson Garcia and Jamison Battle have All-Big Ten talent, but the Gophers haven't been able to tap into that potential since the forward tandem started playing together in the last three games.
Battle and Garcia are averaging 21.3 points combined in three games, but that was skewed a bit after they had just 11 points together on 4-for-19 shooting Monday at Virginia Tech. Garcia was dealing with flu symptoms. Battle's still adjusting physically to playing heavy minutes (35.0) coming off foot surgery.
Their best scoring game together so far was combining for 32 points and 17 rebounds vs. UNLV, but it wasn't efficient enough all-around to lead the Gophers to victory. Garcia had five turnovers. And Battle struggled from the field and got into foul trouble.
How the Gophers can get the most out of the ability of their top two players will determine how well they can be competitive in the Big Ten.
The Gophers have played well enough defensively during stretches to frustrate opponents. It's been tough to sustain that level of pressure, but they forced six turnovers early in the first half at Virginia Tech.
What has sunk Johnson's team in games this season has been an abysmal performance offensively. Overall, the Gophers are last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (62.1), 12th in field goal percentage (41.7) and 11th in three-point percentage (31.7).
It's been worse in the three losses. The Gophers shot 35.7% from the field, 27.1% from three-point range and 55.4% from the foul line vs. DePaul, UNLV and Virginia Tech.
Playing through Payne
At 6-9 and 255 pounds, freshman Pharrel Payne rarely meets his match physically in the paint, but the Gophers haven't started him and are still figuring out when to play through him.
It makes sense that Battle and Garcia are the main options with their versatility, but both players are more perimeter oriented and haven't seen many jump shots falling lately.
Payne, who leads the team with 12 dunks this year, ranks fourth in the Big Ten shooting 72.2% from the field. The Cottage Grove native was a load to stop for Virginia Tech inside early and tied Ta'Lon Cooper for the team-high with 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting Monday.
In the first half, the Hokies double teamed Battle on a drive to the middle and he found Payne open on the baseline for a dunk. Payne's second slam of the night on an alley-oop from Cooper also tied the game 22-22 before the Gophers were blitzed to end the opening period.
One of the carryovers from last season in a concerning area has been the problems rebounding. This is nearly an entirely different roster, but the Gophers are last again in the Big Ten.
Through seven games, the U has a Big-Ten worst rebounding margin at minus-2.7. That actually doesn't come close to telling the story about how much opponents dominated the Gophers on the boards in a couple of their losses.
UNLV tied the Gophers 44-44 on the glass last week. But Virginia Tech and DePaul outrebounded Minnesota 90-59 in their games. That's a minus-15.5 rebounding difference.
Keeping Purdue off the glass in Sunday's Big Ten opener in West Lafayette will be the biggest challenge yet for the Gophers. The Boilermakers are No. 2 in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (plus-10.1) and 7-4 center Zach Edey leads the conference and ranks fourth nationally with 12.0 rebounds per game.