Gophers Becoming Comeback Kids

Tubby Smith's Gophers have learned how to overcome adversity on the road, a quality that could serve them well come tournament time. On Thursday, it was a dramatic come-from-behind scene in Wisconsin.

It seems as if the same question surrounds the Gophers, regardless of what they accomplish. Is this team for real?

With their third comeback from a double-digit deficit on the road against Wisconsin on Thursday, the No. 18 Gophers answered that question, again.

Down by 12 against Colorado State on Nov. 22, the Gophers came back. Struggling at Iowa just last week, Minnesota turned a 13-point gap into a three-point win. At Madison, the Gophers were down by 14 points in the second half but came back to win by four points in overtime.

That ability to handle adversity away from home will not only help Minnesota earn its first NCAA bid in five seasons, but it should also help it weather a tough stretch with four of its next six games on the road.

Minnesota takes on a Northwestern squad that led Purdue by 14 Thursday night before faltering late and losing by two points.

Another tough road game for the Gophers? Maybe, but that tends to bring out the best in them.

MINNESOTA 78, WISCONSIN 74 (OT): Every sign pointed to the Gophers (16-1, 4-1 Big Ten) losing their 13th game in a row at Wisconsin (12-5, 3-2) on Thursday. They were down by 14 points in the second half, and Wisconsin led by 10 points with 4:43 to play.

Then, it happened. More like, Lawrence Westbrook happened. The Gophers junior scored a career-high 29 points. His 3-pointer with two seconds remaining in regulation sent the game into overtime.

His nine points in the extra period helped Minnesota earn its first road victory over the Badgers since 1994.

Tubby Smith called the win one of the biggest during his tenure.

NOTES

  • Tubby Smith had the patience to stick with junior college transfers Devron Bostick and Paul Carter.

    Now that they know his language, the Gophers may be adding two more pieces to a deep and talented squad.

    Minnesota's ability to mix and match defenses has frustrated early league opponents. A recent victim was Penn State, which was feeling pretty good after upsetting Purdue at home. Then the Gophers unplugged one of the conference's more potent attacks, holding both Jamelle Cornley and Stanley Pringle under their scoring averages.

    That wasn't nearly as impressive, though, as the performances turned in by the pair of JUCO transfers. As the conference season hits its stride, so too are Bostick and Carter, who combined for 33 points in the victory against Penn State.

    "I've had junior college transfers over the years, and they all take awhile to understand the system," Smith said. "It's like going into a different class. The fundamentals are the same, but the terminology, the system, the offense and defense is different. It usually takes them half a year."

    That puts Bostick and Carter right on pace. They entered the Jan. 15 game at Wisconsin averaging just eight points between them.

    But those high expectations they entered with might be close to being realized. If that duo stays hot, the Gophers might just be the team to beat in the Big Ten.

  • No one was averaging even 13 points per game, but Minnesota had 10 players averaging at least 4.0 per game to provide the league's most balanced attack.

  • The Gophers shot a staggering 62.5 percent from the field in its big win against Penn State on Jan. 11. "Coming from where we came from in junior college, we were the main options," Carter said. "So the ball was going through us. It was one-on-one situations and that's how we're used to playing. In this offense, you're coming off screens, you're curling, you're popping off pick-and-rolls, so that was the only challenge for us."

  • Tubby Smith had hinted that his bench may get shorter once the conference season arrived, but the Gophers still have 11 players averaging double figures in minutes. No one, though, is averaging more than Al Nolen's 29.2, meaning all legs should be fresh for the final two months.

  • After missing most of the first half because of foul trouble, F Damian Johnson helped Minnesota pick up the defensive pace against Wisconsin. He finished with 11 points, despite only playing a few minutes of the first half after picking up two quick fouls. He survived, however, until the end of overtime, even though the Gophers played aggressive defense, forcing 11 turnovers in the second half.

  • G Lawrence Westbrook leads Minnesota in scoring with 12.8 points per game. At just 6 feet, Westbrook has relied on a hard pump fake to trick his defender and his quick first step to get past him. Now, he's using his speed to get to the rim, as evidenced by a reverse layup that he made to start overtime at Wisconsin. That tenacity at the rim will also help him earn more free-throw opportunities.

  • G Blake Hoffarber's slump continues. The career 40 percent 3-point shooter is 5-for-24 from the 3-point arc in his last six games. He hasn't hit one from long distance since the Jan. 3 game against Ohio State. The Gophers have struggled in part because Hoffarber's shooting ability helps build momentum.

    IN FOCUS: If the Gophers don't experience a letdown from their dramatic win at Wisconsin, they should have no trouble on Sunday. The Wildcats have lost 28 of their last 29 Big Ten contests.

    PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — G Lawrence Westbrook, G Al Nolen, F Damian Johnson, F Ralph Sampson III, C Colton Iverson. Key Subs — G Blake Hoffarber, F Paul Carter, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, G/F Travis Busch, G Devoe Joseph, G Devron Bostick.

    GAME REVIEW:
    Minnesota 68, Ohio State 59
    Minnesota 52, Iowa 49
    Minnesota 79, Penn State 59
    Minnesota 78, Wisconsin 74 (OT)

    GAME PREVIEW:
    at Northwestern, Sunday, Jan. 18
    vs. Purdue, Thursday, Jan. 22
    at Indiana, Sunday, Jan. 25


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