Sandell: Gophers get a welcomed wake-up call before facing Duke
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Call it a "much-needed" tune-up.
After opening the season with three consecutive blowouts, the Gophers men's basketball team found itself in an unfamiliar situation on Sunday.
For the first time this year, the Gophers had to rally back from a pair of deficits before a strong second half push secured a 72-57 victory against Richmond, keeping them undefeated heading into their anticipated meeting with No. 9-ranked Duke.
Sunday gave the Gophers an abrupt, but friendly reminder of the resiliency required as the competition level continues to increase -- a trait that can be overshadowed by small layers of complacency sometimes born out of lopsided wins.
The wake-up call came just in time, with the Blue Devils awaiting them in the first round of next weekend's Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. Afterwards, the Gophers expressed almost a sense of relief that they required a comeback.
"We needed something to go into the Duke game with," senior forward Rodney Williams said. "I think that if we would have won this game like we've been winning, I'm not say we'd go in there kind of cocky, but I don't think it would have been the same ... For us to be able to fight back and get the W by the amount of points that we did, that shows that we're a pretty poised team, I think. Our defense is excellent right now. I think we showed a lot tonight."
Richmond, with its Princeton style offense on display, took advantage of sluggish starts in both halves by the Gophers and a slew of turnovers (19) to open up leads of nine and seven points. But on both occasions, the Gophers used a stifling defense that eventually gave way to numerous scoring chances.
Crucial shots by Williams (15 points), freshman guard Andre Hollins (14 pts) and junior guard Austin Hollins (13 pts) energized the Gophers. Once their offense finally backed up to the stops being created on defense, the Gophers were able to overwhelm the pesky Richmond squad by going on a 30-8 run in the final 10 minutes.
"Tonight's effort was a good test for us," coach Tubby Smith said. "We needed a game like this to see how we would respond. I thought our guys responded the right way ... Once again we did it with our defense."
Richmond exposed, at least momentarily, some of the flaws the Gophers had gotten away with in their first three games. Turnovers remain a problem. The Gophers have coughed up the ball at least 17 times in each game this season. The Spiders capitalized by scoring 25 of their 57 points off turnovers.
"We just wanted to get up and down, and when you turn the ball over and not getting stops form the team... it kind of slows down our game," said senior forward Trevor Mbakwe, who produced his best game since returning from reconstructive knee surgery (9 points and 12 rebounds in 27 minutes).
"We're best when we're in transition, and Dre and Austin both hit some key threes and big shots for us to kind of extend the lead, and we were able to build off that."
Richmond also held a 19-18 rebound advantage in the first half before the Gophers settled in and controlled the boards for the rest of the game (23-11 in the second half).
Although they acknowledged the shortcomings that have to be addressed, the "U" players were confident their win Sunday could propel them to a potential upset against Duke.
"I think it would mean a lot for this program," Williams said. "We know that we're capable of going out there and beating Duke, but right now I feel like it's kind of us against the world right now. We've just got to go out there and play how we play, play our style of basketball, play the defense that we're playing, and we'll be alright."