Gophers Survive Road Test, Nolen Injury

Give the Gophers credit. Not for winning a Big Ten road game against a rebuilding Michigan Wolverines team. Give them credit for stepping up as a team in the face of yet more adversity.

This time the setback was a mid-game injury to senior point guard Al Nolen. Nolen went down with a twisted ankle right before halftime where the Gophers led 31-29. The Gophers could have hung their heads at the news of another setback, as Nolen didn't play one second half minute. But instead others stepped up and carried Minnesota to a much needed road win, 69-64 in Ann Arbor.

Credit Blake Hoffarber for sliding over from his shooting guard spot to play point guard. Hoffarber had 6 assists to 0 turnovers. He had 12 points, most down the stretch as the Gophers worked to ice the game. Hoffarber didn't score with the three ball as he usually does, but he instead showed just how much he has grown. In the last three years can we remember a time when Hoffarber, with 10 seconds left on the shot clock, would have the ability to take a more athletic defender off the dribble into the paint for a clutch two? That's what Hoffarber did Saturday.

Credit Chip Armelin. He played a sort-of co-point guard role at times with Hoffarber on the floor. He finished with 7 points, 2 assists and 2 steals in 20 solid minutes. Chip has a rare ability to completely impact a game in just a few minutes, and he did that with back-to-back strong moves to the basket in the second half.

Credit Maverick Ahanmisi. The freshman point guard had played all of 7 combined minutes in the Gophers' previous two games. Against Michigan he was forced to play 13 very important minutes. Ahanmisi wasn't spectacular, but he answered the call. Ahanmisi was 2-2 from the floor for 5 points. He's shooting 41 percent on the year from beyond the arc. Hoffarber, for comparison, is shooting 39 percent.

Minnesota needed those three to step up in that capacity, because winning in Ann Arbor isn't easy. The loss of Nolen could also have meant Darius Morris would have more of an opportunity to dominate. But as Minnesota played the 2-3 zone that helped them through the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, Morris was held in check. Tim Hardaway, Jr. led the Wolverines with 20 points.

Minnesota's offense was balanced. Ralph Sampson III and Trevor Mbakwe led Minnesota with 13 points each. Hoffarber added 12. Rodney Williams came through with 10. But it wasn't so much who scored for Minnesota, as it was how efficiently the Gophers did score.

Minnesota shot 63 percent from the floor. That was because for the first time, the Gophers used their insider bulk and completely dominated the paint. Minnesota out-rebounded a much smaller Michigan team 37-11. Sampson, Mbakwe and Colton Iverson as a trio were simply too big for Michigan to handle.

This was an important road win for the Gophers as they climbed to 4-3 in Big Ten play. It's quite possible Ohio State will run away with the conference title, but the Gophers are in a position, with a favorable schedule, to fight for a great Big Ten finish. More thoughts below the jump.

  • Williams had made 2 treys all season. He was a ghastly 2-23 heading into Saturday. But in the second half, on two occasions, Williams caught, didn't hesitate, and shot. He made two clutch threes.
  • As well as the Gophers did on the glass and scoring the ball inside, on the other end of the spectrum was their ball handling. Minnesota committed 17 turnovers. Many of them were cringe-worthy. And many of these were not a result of Nolen's departure, as Minnesota accumulated turnovers early. Mbakwe had 5. Iverson and Williams 3 each. The Gophers simply need to protect the basketball. Because they didn't, this game was closer than it needed to be.
  • As noted above, Minnesota shot 63 percent from the floor. That's good. But they also shot 56 percent from the free throw line (13-23). That's not good.
  • Austin Hollins played just 3 minutes off the bench. It was reported after the game he had the flu.
  • Iverson finished with 9 points and 9 rebounds. On a couple of occasions, Iverson showed that he can be Minnesota's best player with his back to the basket. A couple of his jump hooks looked almost graceful.
  • Minnesota benefited from its 2-3 zone. I believe they used the zone against Michigan because the Woliverines have a decided quickness advantage that makes it difficult for our bigs -- especially when Iverson and Sampson are on the floor together -- to cover quicker bigs on the perimeter. That forced Michigan to hoist up 35 treys. They made 12. Minnesota's man-to-man defense has struggled all year, especially on the perimeter. I wouldn't mind seeing more 2-3 zone.
  • The upcoming schedule is interesting. The Gophers come home Wednesday to face Northwestern, a team that took Michigan State to overtime on the road. The Wildcats are on the Big Ten Network today against Wisconsin. Then Minnesota has a two game road stint, with games at Purdue (Saturday) and Indiana before coming home to face two tough opponents in Ohio State and Illinois.
  • Finally, on Nolen's injury. I haven't seen news yet to how serious it is. Though reports have been that he was in a walking boot and crutches after the game. The team has said publicly it's a twisted or sprained ankle. While information right now is at a minimum, I think it's safe to say that if Nolen is sidelined for any significant length, that will spell bad news for Minnesota. Yes, Minnesota survived and excelled at times without Nolen today. But his defensive tenacity, among other things, is simply too much for this team to excel without on a long-term basis. Let's hope Nolen's ankle was simply twisted and he'll be ready for Northwestern.
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