Gophers pick up tempo with zippy second half

MINNEAPOLIS — For 20 minutes, Sunday’s game between Minnesota and Northwestern was played at a snail’s pace.

Neither team shot particularly well, and neither pushed the ball much in transition. When Northwestern had the ball on offense, the Wildcats ran the shot clock down to just a few seconds left before taking a shot. And while the Gophers out-rebounded the Wildcats by a wide margin, Minnesota only led by three at the half. The halftime score: 17-14.

Yes, you read that right. It was a halftime score you’d expect to see at TCF Bank Stadium across the street, not at Williams Arena.

Yet while the Gophers were frustrated with the pace of play in the first half, they didn’t let it carry over after halftime. Thanks to a 52-point second half, Minnesota ran away from Northwestern, winning by a 69-51 final to improve to 2-0 in Big Ten play.

“Our kids stayed focused, stayed poised. There’s going to be games like this,” said Gophers coach Tubby Smith. “That’s what I told them at halftime: The most insignificant score in sports is the halftime score.”

Smith also told his players to push the tempo against Northwestern, a team that gave up 94 points in a loss to Michigan on Thursday. Minnesota has been at its best this year when scoring in transition, but that didn’t happen in the first half.

In fact, the Gophers had exactly zero fast break points.

“We just wanted to get out and keep the pace to where we wanted to play and not slow it down,” said senior forward Trevor Mbakwe. “We didn’t want a low-scoring game. We didn’t want to keep them in the game, because anything can happen in a close game. We wanted to get out in transition and seal the game up.”

Mbakwe helped do that in the second half, as he picked up one of his four blocks in the game early in the second half and ended up with a slam dunk on the other end in transition. The dunk gave the Gophers what at the time appeared to be an insurmountable eight-point lead and brought some life into the Williams Arena crowd for the first time all game.

It also helped jump-start the tempo of the game. Minnesota finished with 12 fast-break points in the second half.

“When we block shots, get steals, we want to put it out in transition and get easy buckets,” said Mbakwe, who finished with nine points and five rebounds. “Especially when we play against teams like that who take care of the ball, you have to get up and down and speed the tempo up. That’s what we wanted to make an emphasis of and score off the defensive mistakes.”

When the final buzzer sounded Sunday, that low-scoring first half was long forgotten. Austin Hollins was a big reason why. The Gophers junior hit five consecutive 3-pointers to push Minnesota’s lead to 20 points.

“After I hit the first two or three, I was definitely starting to feel it,” Hollins said. “They just kept on falling, so if I was open, I was going to let it fly.”

Hollins finished with a game-high 19 points — one shy of tying his career high — and his barrage of 3-pointers helped turn the tide in the second half. Before he hit his first one, the Gophers’ lead was nine points as Northwestern was trying to hang around.

“We all know that Austin’s capable of doing that at any time,” said senior Rodney Williams, who scored his 1,000th career point Sunday. “It came at a real crucial time, too. We’re happy to see that.”

Minnesota was able to overcome a brutal first half Sunday to improve to 14-1. If the Gophers score 17 first-half points in any of their next three games, though, they’ll likely be dead in the water.

After winning two home games to open up the Big Ten season, the ninth-ranked Gophers hit the road for games at No. 11 Illinois and No. 5 Indiana before hosting No. 2 Michigan on Jan. 17. It’s a tough stretch of games against Top 15 opponents, but that’s life in the Big Ten.

While Sunday’s win wasn’t pretty, the Gophers feel they’re ready for the challenge ahead.

“The maturity of our group, I think it’s an ongoing process,” Smith said. “Certainly, we know we’ve got a long ways to go and a lot to work on to improve.”

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