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Defense Stiffens As Gophers Cruise Against EKU

The Gophers held Eastern Kentucky scoreless for the first 10 minutes of the second half and Ralph Sampson III filled up the stat sheet as Minnesota cruised at home to a 71-58 win Saturday afternoon.

Sampson led the way with 19 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and a block. But the story for the Gophers was the team defense. After struggling defensively against the likes of St. Joseph's, Cornell and Virginia, the Gophers finally clamped down on defense against the Colonels. During that decisive 10 minute stretch, the Gophers forced turnovers, helped on defense and took control of the glass. The Colonels had a slight rebounding advantage at halftime, but by game's end, the Gophers had exerted their force on the interior and claimed a 34-21 rebounding advantage.

The first half wasn't as easy for Minnesota. The Gophers turned the ball over 11 times in the first half (only 5 in the second) and struggled against EKU's 1-3-1 zone. But because EKU was only playing the 1-3-1 zone after made baskets (questionable strategy), the Gophers were able to avoid playing against the zone for literally half of the second half.

Blake Hoffarber and Trevor Mbakwe both added 14 points for Minnesota. And Devoe Joseph had 6 assists. Minnesota product Justin Stommes led the Colonels with 19 points.

Minnesota's second half domination of an inferior opponent was great to see, after the Gophers have struggled since the Puerto Rico Tip Off against all levels of competition. With blizzard-like conditions outside, and a smaller-than-usual crowd, the Gophers lacked energy for much of the first half. After the Colonels tied the game at 25 with less than 10 seconds left in the first half, Maverick Ahanmisi fired a half-court buzzer beater to send Minnesota into halftime up 28-25. The momentum clearly shifted, because after the Gophers came out of the halftime locker room, Minnesota was clearly the superior team.

More thoughts below the jump.

Some items for discussion:

Free Throws: The Gophers again struggled at the stripe. Sampson was 7-8, but the rest of the team was a combined 5-14. The Gophers will not win close Big Ten games if they shoot that way from the line.

Sampson: He had a nice game after struggling after the Puerto Rico tournament. But his 19 points largely came from the line and on dunks. That said, he seemed more aggressive today than he has in the past couple weeks.

Chip Armelin: He had another one of his stretches today that really excites me about this freshman. This time it was in the second half, where his energy forced a couple turnovers. And his knack for making fantastic finishes around the rim is sure fun to watch.

Mo Walker: He didn't follow-up his career-game at St. Joes with another great performance, but more and more Mo looks like a big man that in the years to come can grow into a force in the conference. I just love his passing ability and basketball instincts. He seems to know where his teammates are on offense and has a soft passing touch most of our big men don't have.

The 1-3-1 zone: The Gophers really struggled against that zone and I hope Coach Smith spends significant practice time before games against Michigan and Northwestern working to attack the 1-3-1's vulnerabilities. The Gophers also need to have the right personnel on the floor against that zone. To attack the zone in the corner, one of its vulnerabilities, the Gophers should have a shooter in the corner. But often Joseph and Hoffarber were up top and Rodney Williams was in the baseline corner. Considering Rodney isn't exactly lighting it up with his jump shot, the Gophers might be better off with someone else spotting up in the corner.

Minnesota's 2-3 zone: In the first half, Tubby went to the 2-3 zone with the second five. And while the Gophers did play much better man defense in the second half, I think the Gophers might want to toy with playing more zone. All of our bigs, perhaps other than Mbakwe, are tremendously vulnerable to more athletic bigs. Sampson, Walker and Colton Iverson all lack in terms of lateral quickness and EKU exploited that a bit with back door cuts today.

Point Guards: Devoe Joseph seemed a bit more comfortable on the floor today. He pushed tempo when appropriate and had 6 assists to 2 turnovers. He couldn't find his shot, but I'll take that from Joseph. Ahanmisi, however, struggled. Outside of the half-court buzzer beater, the freshman point guard took a couple of out of control shots and turned the ball over three times. It wasn't his best game. I still think the Gophers would be well-served to let Hoffarber play some point guard.

Up next? The mighty Akron Zips Wednesday night at Williams Arena. Let's hope everyone can dig out of the snow by then.