Gophers gaining momentum after ugly win

MINNEAPOLIS — All year, the Gophers men’s basketball team has talked about the importance of protecting its home court. Sunday, Minnesota needed a last-second 3-pointer by Austin Hollins to defend Williams Arena from the visiting Iowa Hawkeyes.

Hollins hit the biggest shot of the game with 11.6 seconds to play and the Gophers held on for what proved to be an ugly 62-59 win. But after recently snapping its four-game losing streak, Minnesota is glad to now have a two-game winning streak, regardless of how ugly it might have been.

“We had one foot in the grave,” said Gophers head coach Tubby Smith. “We did what we had to do to get the win.”

It wasn’t pretty for Minnesota on Sunday as the Gophers nearly let the pesky Hawkeyes steal one at Williams Arena. The same problems that plagued Minnesota during its four-game losing streak resurfaced: too many turnovers (and at key moments), a lack of production from the bench (the Gophers’ reserves did not score Sunday) and allowing too many second-chance opportunities (Iowa had 18 offensive rebounds).

Minnesota’s last turnover of the game nearly proved to be fatal. With Iowa up two and only one minute remaining, sophomore guard Joe Coleman’s bad pass gave the Hawkeyes the ball and a chance to put the game away. But Iowa came up empty on the possession, giving the Gophers the ball back with 36.6 seconds remaining.

“They don’t really panic,” Smith said of his team. “Even when we threw the ball out of bounds, we just thought we were going to win the game.”

That Iowa turnover set up Hollins’ late-game heroics, which salvaged what would have otherwise been a brutal loss that would have dropped the Gophers to under .500 in Big Ten play.

“We knew that they’re a good team. They’re a scrappy team. They’re a really good team,” said sophomore Andre Hollins. “Their record doesn’t show how good they are, but they work hard, they’re well-coached. We pulled it out today.”

Minnesota led 14-2 early in the first half but let Iowa climb back to a one-point deficit at halftime. The Gophers’ half-court offense stalled while Iowa used several 3-pointers to get back into the game.

But Minnesota showed resiliency, never letting Iowa’s lead get to more than four points in the second half. It wasn’t the one-sided victory some may have expected, but the Gophers showed they could still get the job done.

“Iowa’s a tough team. You’ve got to give them credit,” Austin Hollins said. “I think we showed a lot of heart at the end of the game.”

After the game, Smith was asked whether his team was playing as well now as it was earlier in the season. It’s a fair question, given Minnesota’s descent in both the Top 25 rankings and the Big Ten standings. And after Indiana and Michigan, two of the conference’s elite teams, battled it out against each other Saturday, it became evident that Minnesota isn’t at that level, at least not right now.

Smith’s squad was once ranked No. 8 in the country and now is clinging to its No. 23 spot in the rankings. At 5-4 in conference play, the Gophers are also stuck in the middle of what is proving to be a very tough Big Ten.

“I hope we haven’t peaked,” Smith said. “We have a lot more to learn, a lot more improvement to do. But this is a good start.”

Things only get tougher from here on out for Minnesota as the Gophers travel Wednesday to take on No. 13 Michigan State, a team they beat earlier this year at home. If not for Hollins’ clutch shot, Minnesota likely would have been heading to East Lansing with a loss.

But now that the Gophers have won two straight, the “m” word was used once again Sunday.

“You don’t want to lose this one, especially the way we’ve been playing,” said Coleman, who had 12 points in Sunday’s win. “We want to keep that momentum rolling.”

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