Gophers picked ideal time for strong showing

March 23, 2013

Vegas pegged the Gophers as three-point favorites over UCLA on Friday. Perhaps the oddsmakers should have upped the ante.

Many jumped on the Minnesota bandwagon for the Gophers' first game of the NCAA tournament. The Bruins were without their second-leading scorer and lacked depth. While the Gophers limped into the tournament as an 11 seed, they were still favored to win Friday.

Not only did Tubby Smith's team win, but it did so in convincing fashion. Minnesota embarrassed No. 6 UCLA with an 83-63 win to advance to the next round. It was the school's first NCAA tournament win since 1997, although that season was vacated due to NCAA violations. So officially, it was the first tournament victory since 1990.

The Gophers will now face No. 3 Florida after Friday's impressive performance. The winner advances to the Sweet 16. If Minnesota can play Sunday like it did Friday, that's a strong possibility.

If that is to happen, the Gophers will need a repeat performance from Andre Hollins, who seems to loves the big stage. The Gophers' sophomore guard was instrumental during his team's NIT run a year ago. On Friday, under the brighter lights of the NCAA tournament, Hollins scored a game-high 28 points to spark Minnesota. He also had nine rebounds and five assists, doing a little of everything for the Gophers.

Hollins had perfect timing in Friday's win. As UCLA cut the Gophers' lead to just five in the second half, the sophomore hit back-to-back 3-pointers to push the lead to 11. He drained another 3-pointer to make it a 15-point lead, sealing the Bruins' fate. Hollins finished 8-for-16 from the floor, 5-for-8 from long distance and a perfect 7-for-7 from the free throw line.

But Hollins didn't do it alone, though, as Minnesota exhibited a much more balanced roster than UCLA. Joe Coleman chipped in 10 points off the bench. Austin Hollins had 16, including 4-of-6 from 3-point range. Senior Trevor Mbakwe had nine points and 12 boards, while Elliott Eliason chipped in six points and four rebounds. Senior Rodney Williams had a quiet night, however, scoring just four points on 2-of-7 shooting.

The Bruins, meanwhile, played just seven players compared to the Gophers' 11. Outside of freshman star Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA lacked a go-to scoring option. Muhammad had a team-high 20 points but didn't get much help.

Friday's win for the Gophers may not have been surprising to many, as it seemed quite a few people were picking Minnesota to win. The one-sided nature of the Gophers' victory was the surprising part, and it helped erase any thoughts of how Minnesota finished the season. The Gophers lost three straight heading into the NCAA tournament and dropped 11 of their last 16 games. During that stretch, the players' confidence seemed to diminish from where it was when they opened the season 15-1.

The Minnesota team that took the court Friday surely seemed to have a renewed sense of confidence and energy. The Gophers were aggressive and took command against a worn down Bruins team.

The test gets tougher Sunday against Florida, which dealt Northwestern State a 79-47 loss. For one night, though, Smith and the Gophers could enjoy the fruits of their labor. Minnesota's first tournament win in more than two decades was certainly well deserved.

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