Gophers have new confidence as Iowa arrives

MINNEAPOLIS — Tuesday’s win against Nebraska was just what the Gophers men’s basketball team needed after enduring a rough stretch in Big Ten play. Minnesota ended a four-game skid and regained a bit of confidence against a struggling Cornhuskers team with its convincing 84-65 win.

That win also served as a shot in the arm for senior Rodney Williams, who had been virtually non-existent in the Gophers’ previous two games. But Williams came to life and scored a season-high 23 points, one shy of his matching career high.

Then there was the boost Tuesday’s victory gave Minnesota’s bench, a unit that has failed to contribute at a consistent level during the Gophers’ four-game losing streak. Of course, it’s been a while since Minnesota has led by double-digits late in the game, which allowed some of the reserves to see more playing time Tuesday.

“You always need games where guys feel good about themselves,” Gophers coach Tubby Smith said about the bench after the win. “Lord knows we’ve had enough negative over the last two weeks. Enough garbage. But that’s the way it goes, garbage in, garbage out.”

Minnesota got 23 points and 12 rebounds from its bench in the win over Nebraska. Guard Maverick Ahanmisi led all reserves with nine points on 4-of-7 shooting. Seven different players scored and even little-used reserves Chris Halvorsen and Kendal Shell got into the game for the final two minutes.

In its loss to Wisconsin one game earlier, Minnesota got just 10 points from its bench. The game before that — a loss on the road to Northwestern — the Gophers’ reserves scored just seven, all of which came from Julian Welch.

While bench scoring had been an issue for Minnesota, so too had turnovers. But that was another problem the Gophers fixed in the win against Nebraska as they turned the ball over just six times while forcing 11 Cornhuskers turnovers.

“Taking care of the ball is key for us,” said Williams. “In these losses, that played a big part. For us to take care of the ball, you can see what that did for us.”

Now that Minnesota has snapped its losing streak, the Gophers will look to build a two-game winning streak Sunday when the Iowa Hawkeyes come to Williams Arena. It’s the first of two meetings between these two teams this season. Minnesota will travel to Iowa City on Feb. 17 for the second matchup.

It’s been an up-and-down start to the Big Ten season for Iowa, which began conference play with three losses against ranked teams — including a four-point loss to then-No. 5 Indiana — before beating Northwestern on the road and Wisconsin at home. The Hawkeyes then lost a pair to Ohio State and Purdue, both on the road, before beating Penn State on Thursday.

Can Tuesday’s win, even against one of the conference’s worst teams, help turn things back around for Minnesota the rest of the way? The Gophers sure think so.

“I definitely think it’s going to get the ball rolling for us,” Williams said. “I just think we needed just this one win to get us going again. After the Indiana loss, we definitely knew that we gave that away. For us to do that three more times, any way to get a win is good. If it was by 18 or by two points, just to get a win would have been good for us (Tuesday).”

Prior to their four-game losing streak, Minnesota was among the top four teams in the Big Ten. Since losing four in a row, the Gophers have dropped from No. 8 to No. 23 in the rankings and are now sixth in the conference standings. The win against Nebraska was nice, but things won’t get any easier from here on out in what has proved to be perhaps the toughest conference in college basketball.

“We’re not content with this,” senior Trevor Mbakwe said after Tuesday’s win. “We want to win out the rest of the games so now we’ve got to celebrate this and get ready for Iowa this weekend.”

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