The Gophers snapped a four-game skid Sunday night, playing some of their best basketball in weeks as they easily handled the cold-shooting Iowa Hawkeyes 62-45 in Iowa City.
The win was a must for Minnesota's once strong NCAA Tournament hopes, for Tubby Smith who had never endured a 5-game losing streak, for the fans who have been in near meltdown mode and for the players, who had to realize they can win games and salvage their season as they wait for Al Nolen's foot to heal.
Two players inparticular stepped up. Trevor Mbakwe had 24 points (22 in the second half) and went 10-11 from the stripe. In the first half, the Gophers were carried by the much-maligned Rodney Williams. The sophomore finished the night with 13 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists, a solid line. But Williams offensive spurt, which consisted of a drive to the rim, some nice finishes around the basket, a put back and a catch and shoot three, came in the early stages of the game when Minnesota desperately needed someone to step up. On this night, Rodney stepped up.
For the first time in what seems like all season, the Gophers ran into a team that was ice cold from the perimeter. Minnesota forced Iowa into outside shots throughout the game. During stretches, Minnesota's length and quickness in the 2-3 zone forced Iowa into contested shots. But in other moments it was clear Iowa was just having one of those nights where shots weren't falling. Iowa shot an abysmal 6-28 (21 percent from 3). For the game, the Hawkeyes shot just 34 percent. Matt Gatens inparticular was a frigid 2-11.From a strategy standpoint, it was interesting to see Tubby go back to the 2-3 zone, which Minnesota played exclusively against Iowa. One reason Tubby has hesitated to use the zone more was Minnesota's inability to rebound out of it. But on this night, Minnesota did just fine rebounding as a team, as they out-rebounded Iowa 30-23.
Tubby also started the game with the big lineup that he used initially after Nolen's injury. Mbakwe was joined by centers Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III in the starting lineup with Williams and Blake Hoffarber. It was that lineup, actually, that sputtered out of the gate. It wasn't until Minnesota began to play a smaller lineup, with two of the bigs and a collection of guards and wings that they began to play quality basketball.
Williams and Mbakwe weren't the only Minnesota players to step up. Maverick Ahanmisi, who has been all but run out of Dinkytown by the fan base, played 11 solid minutes. He pushed tempo where appropriate. He hit an open 3 and finished with seven points. He led the fast break. He penetrated and found Mbakwe in the lane. Seven points, two assists, one steal, one turnover in 11 minutes? I'll take that, especially because on this night Ahanmisi wasn't a liability on defense. In the 2-3 zone, Ahanmisi wasn't asked to man-up on a more athletic point guard. He held his own on defense.
Making Ahanmisi's and Williams' performances all that much more important was Hoffarber's quiet night offensively. The senior shooting guard turned point guard didn't connect on a 3 and finished with a quiet 6 points.
** Chip Armelin needs to be freed. He played just 5 minutes tonight. I just don't understand that. He is a bundle of energy on defense. He'll attack the basket and create a shot on offense. For a team that struggles mightily to create opportunities to score, I don't understand why he's not seeing more minutes. I've never been on the 'Chip should play point guard' train, but I am on the Free Chip bandwagon.
** Ralph Sampson III had a very quiet night. Two rebounds, 4 assists, 4 turnovers and 2 points. Not his best stat line.
** Austin Hollins was OK. With the minutes he's receiving -- 19 against Iowa -- he needs to do more. He still seems unsure of himself at least half the time he touches the ball.
** The intentional foul call on Mbakwe was one of the dumbest things I've seen called in a long time. He executed a basketball move that had his right elbow clear in front of a defender. It wasn't malicious. It was perfectly executed. And Iowa gets 2 free throws and the ball? Horrible. The NCAA needs to review this silly policy of forcing its referees to review all 'elbows' and hand out intentional or technical fouls or ejections. This was a clean basketball play and should have stood without a foul on Mbakwe.
At 6-7 the Gophers are in a crowded 4 through 7 section of the B1G. That puts Minnesota a half-game out of 4th place behind Illinois and Sparty at 6-6 and even with Penn State and Michigan at 6-7. The Gophers will go to see Talor Battle and Penn State later this week in Happy Valley. For my money, this is the most difficult game left on the schedule. Something tells me that with Battle's sharp-shooting ways, the Gophers won't be playing as much 2-3 zone.