One. This was not pretty, but they overcame.
Minnesota had only a 29-23 lead in the first half but there was a complete change in half number two. It seemed the Gophers used a vs NJIT mental approach in half one, and vs Georgia Southern approach in half two. After the halftime break everything changed. The defensive rotations picked up, there were successful passing lane jumps because Gophers were in the right position, and Minnesota was more intense.
Offensively the ball movement changed from a lack of ball movement (like the NJIT game) to excellent ball movement with a lot of off ball activity in their motion (like Georgia Southern). It was another one of those games where Minnesota wasn’t playing to their potential for a time, but then adjusted and took the game over. Five different Gophers scored in double figures (Lynch 18, Murphy 12, Mason 11, McBrayer 10, Springs 10) as the balance hard returned.
Two. Dominated up front.
The match-up talked about before the game was 6-foot-11 Marin Maric vs Reggie Lynch. How was Reggie going to play against a bigger, skilled talent? The answer was that Reggie dominated Maric. Early in the game Lynch was able to work Maric higher off the block and force back to the basket post catches in areas Maric wasn’t comfortable. It forced Maric to make post moves further from the rim and he either shot and missed, or turned the ball over with a bad pass. Meanwhile on the other end Maric nor any other defender was able to rotate and keep Lynch from putting up numbers. Reggie made 8 of his 10 foul shots and 5 of 9 field goals for 18 points to go with his 11 boards and five blocks. Jordan Murphy also had a double-double at 12 points and 10 rebounds. The Gopher size was simply too active and too explosive for NIU to deal with. Minnesota won the rebounding battle 48-28.
Three. Mason ball control, team ball movement.
The source of the early frustration on offense was some bad shots and bad turnovers. Amir Coffey, Akeem Springs, and Amir Coffey combined for 11 turnovers. Point guard Nate Mason had six assists and zero turnovers although you could maybe call a couple of his bad shots turnovers. That said, Nate rarely turns the basketball over and consistently does a great job keeping the ball firing around the perimeter. Mason had six assists and Coffey another four leading a team that had fantastic second half ball movement leading to several shots in front of the rim. That’s how the Gophs crushed Georgia Southern on Friday and that is how they controlled Northern Illinois in the second half.
Four. Frustrating first half.
The first 20 minutes of this game was as frustrated as I’ve been watching this team all season long. The early defensive mistakes from Mason and Springs not rotating on defense and allowing post to cutter scores was just a lack of effort. Dupree McBrayer’s effort moving around screens continues to be a problem and something that teams are game planning to take advantage of. Even worse was that Mason and McBrayer engaged in a trash talking battle with Justin Thomas who did next to nothing, and Marshawn Wilson who scored more points and field goals today than he has scored in the other eight games combined. And Mason was talking this first half trash after shooting 1 for 7 while McBrayer was terrible on defense and had three turnovers. Honestly what could they be saying? “See how bad I was in the first half?” When they shut their mouth and played Minnesota dominated while Wilson just looked foolish talking trash down 20 points.
I was given a little bit of heat for publically saying 12-1 is important for this team when they still had four games to go in non-conference play but I think 12-1 is very, very important to this team. Why?
1. If they go 12-1 that means they were not upset once in non-conference play and they won all of their 50-50 games. It means they went 4-1 in their biggest challenge games (although this Arkansas State game sounds like it could be an added sixth big challenge). And it means they have a really nice non-league resume with the only loss being to a team that I feel will be a Sweet 16 level squad. Gives them leeway for a bad loss in Big Ten play and still have a good looking resume come tournament time.
2. A 12-1 record to shoot for is way more than anybody predicted. I said 11-2 would be doable before the season and people thought I was nuts. At one point I sunk to 10-3 and still people thought it to be crazy. Now we are talking 12-1 which is a great accomplishment after last year.
3. If you put 12-1 on the blackboard you can focus this group to something during a down time in December when finals are taken and then campus gets empty. During a time when the teams on the schedule don’t look as exciting. A motivational tool.
When the fans start seeing 12-1 and see it happen, they get excited. People can start taking notice to what is going on. More people may come and support. A town that has losers everywhere (that’s you Timberwolves, Twins, and for five straight games the Vikings, and…maybe the Wild, I don’t know I don’t watch hockey) can look at a potential winner.