Sandell: Gophers return to form, at least for now, against Nebraska
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Three weeks ago it would have been hard to imagine a match-up with a low-profile Nebraska team eight games into Big Ten play would be considered a "crucial game" for the Gophers.
But four consecutive losses characterized by disjointed and stagnate play had the Gophers in a state of red alert. Without a victory against 11th place Nebraska, they would be facing what had the potential of turning into a season-defining slump.
On Tuesday, coach Tubby Smith's squad underwent a revival they desperately needed.
Against Nebraska, the 23rd-ranked Gophers (16-5, 4-4) found their opening to return to their preferred fast-paced, pressure style after back-to-back slow, grinding games against Northwestern and Wisconsin. In turn, they produced a 84-65 victory that from top to bottom was void of the self-inflicted errors that had put them in a tailspin to begin with.
"Not only did we win the game, but we were getting back to where we were before the last four games. We were being aggressive," sophomore guard Joe Coleman said.
The Gophers, who never trailed, pushed their lead to seven points within six minutes after the opening tip and didn't let get Nebraska any closer. By halftime alone they had already posted 44 points, matching their total from the loss in Madison and just four less than their output at Northwestern (48).
At the center of the Gophers' reemergence was senior forward Rodney Williams. Like his team, Williams had been searching for something to bring his game back to life. For much of the Big Ten season, Williams has had relatively little impact, shooting 7-for-29 from the floor in his last three games.
That was quite the opposite Tuesday.
Williams wasn't the passive on-court presence he had been rendered into as of late. When Nebraska left open lanes into the paint at the onset of the game, Williams willingly seized the opportunity to power through them. A two-handed, wind-up dunk less than 15 seconds in set the tempo not only for the senior forward, but was the first sign of the aggressive edge the Gophers displayed throughout.
Scoring 12 of the team's first 23 points, Williams went on to put up a Big Ten career-high 23 points, ending one point shy of his overall career-high. It wasn't just the flashy dunks and the ease in which he got past Nebraska's shoddy defense that stood out. With the lasting disappointment of his critical missed free throw at the end of the Wisconsin game on his mind, Williams was a perfect 6-for-6 from the line, and even landed his first 3-pointer in two weeks.
"It was definitely a big relief for me personally," Williams said. "Getting those dunks definitely helped get those frustrations out. Then to see the free throws and the 3-pointer go in, just seeing the ball go through the basket is a big confidence boost for me."
The Gophers were able to space out the Huskers and keep them reeling to get back on the defensive end. That translated into creating the formula to unlock Williams and get him back into the mix, as well as giving the rest of the lineup room to create looks at the basket.
"We did some things today to give him some freedom to come out, move more," Smith said. "He's been banging up against some pretty big guys, and tonight he didn't have to do that.
"That's not taking anything away from Rodney. He did a hell of a job, but he's capable of doing that all the time. That's what my expectations are of Rodney and always will be."
A tendency to cripple themselves by turnovers and tempo-killing fouls have been the primary weaknesses surrounding the Gophers both in their recent slide and in the 16 games before it. It's no surprise that they produced one of their best all-around wins when those errors were cut to a distinct minimum.
The Gophers committed just six turnovers -- a season-low -- and scattered their fouls to the point that it didn't derail their pacing.
Nebraska had no answer. It's not often a team will shoot 54.5% (24-of-44) and still lose by 19 points. But the Gophers' dominance on the offensive and defensive glass (36-19 rebounding advantage), and their ability to force the Huskers to keep up resulted in a discrepancy that had Nebraska coach Tim Miles fuming in the locker room afterward.
"The two games against Northwestern and Wisconsin we weren't scoring, we weren't pressing, we weren't able to get out in transition and score easy buckets," senior forward Trevor Mbakwe said. "Today were able to get out and run. That's how we're going to win. We're not going to win too many grind 'em out games in the 40s."
Obviously the positives the Gophers showed Tuesday came against one of the nation's lowest scoring teams and one that is stuck on the bottom tier of the Big Ten standings. But the victory, given the way they brought back the fundamental style of play that had put them in the top-10 of the national rankings, infused the Gophers with a reminder of the identity they have to maintain to ensure they end a two-year NCAA tournament drought.
Apart from point guard Andre Hollins' ever-present grin, smiles have been rarely been seen out of the players since early January. There were plenty to go around on Tuesday.
"You always need games where guys feel good about themselves," Smith said. "Lord knows we had enough negative over the last two weeks, enough garbage. That's the way it goes. Garbage in, garbage out."
The question now becomes can the Gophers replicate this performance level when the competition level spikes again? The remaining 10 regular season games lean in their favor, with six match-ups against the last four teams in the conference. But rematches with No. 13 Michigan State and Wisconsin, as well as a road trip to No. 11 Ohio State, still await them.
Keeping some semblance of the aggressive, high-tempo they displayed versus Nebraska will have to be defining trait for the Gophers for the team to have a chance at peaking in time for a lengthy run in March.