Gophers open play with a bang against Michigan State

Published 11:10 am Wednesday, January 2, 2013

By St. Paul Pioneer Press

With one of the Big Ten’s top frontcourt tandems, a budding star point guard and a deep bench, the Gophers basketball team entered Big Ten play Monday with a top 10 ranking and expectations as big as they’ve been since Tubby Smith arrived.

After just one win, those expectations are soaring even higher.

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The No. 9 Gophers (13-1) held off a second-half rally by No. 18 Michigan State and pulled away for a 76-63 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 14,265 at Williams Arena.

Sophomore point guard Andre Hollins had 22 points and six assists, and senior forwards Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe combined for 26 points and 18 rebounds to help the Gophers extend their winning streak to nine games.

But Monday’s victory was even more significant because it was Smith’s first over the Spartans (11-3) in the regular season as Minnesota’s coach, breaking an 0-10 streak. It took six seasons, but Smith finally has a team capable of being just as physical inside and with tough enough guard play down the stretch to beat Tom Izzo’s bunch.

“We can learn a lot from this game,” Smith said. “We understand that we’re at home. We had a great crowd, unbelievable energy level in the Barn, and our players raised their level of play. Rankings are good. It’s good for a lot of reasons; it’s a confidence builder; it’s good for our fan base. But we’ve got to prove it on the court every day. Our players are starting to understand and be mature about that.”

In November, the Gophers talked a good game before heading into the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas to play Duke. When they got blown out by the Blue Devils, it was clear how far Minnesota had to go to be an elite team. But there was no true test of just how much better the Gophers were until Monday.

Hollins, who scored 41 points in the Bahamas against Memphis, showed pretty quickly how he could take over as a scorer after playing Duke. But against Michigan State, the Memphis native looked for his shot, found his teammates and played better defense down the stretch.

Michigan State rallied behind point guard Keith Appling’s six points during an 11-0 run to take a 55-51 lead in the second half.

But in the final 7:15, Minnesota used an 18-2 run to pick up its first win in a Big Ten opener since the 2009-10 season. Hollins had eight points during that stretch, while helping to hold Appling scoreless in the last 9:23.

Hollins took advantage of Michigan State’s 6-foot-9, 270-pound Derrick Nix on the pick-and-roll. Minnesota’s coaches realized the mismatch with Nix having to defend quicker players, so they called for the play more often in the second half.

“(Nix) doesn’t hedge fast,” Hollins said. “So I knew I could beat him, and I can either pass to Trevor (Mbakwe) or have the jump shot. So we utilized that well.”

Hollins wasn’t even starting for the Gophers when they opened Big Ten play 0-4 last season.

Mbakwe played in his first Big Ten game since the 2010-11 season after blowing out his right knee in the seventh game last year.

“Playing at home makes a difference,” said Mbakwe, who had 11 points and 12 rebounds in 28 minutes while playing without his knee brace. “The crowd was loud today. We have to take care of home court and hope to steal a few on the road. That’s our (goal).”

Mbakwe showed at times that he could be as physically dominant as he was two seasons ago. Hollins and Williams, who are much improved from this point last season, both nailed some clutch free throws down the stretch after Minnesota struggled earlier from the line (3 for 8 in the first half).

Smith is starting to see what the Gophers are capable of if they continue to improve.

“I’m not a prognosticator,” he said. “If we can get better after today’s game, then the sky’s the limit.”