Coach Ben Johnson acknowledges this year’s Gophers men’s basketball team is not going to routinely win by getting into offensive shootouts, but if it takes care of business in its own end, things could end like they did Saturday.
Dawson Garcia scored a team-high 14 points, including a late 3-point play, and Minnesota did just enough offensively to beat South Carolina-Upstate 67-53 at Williams Arena.
Mike Mitchell Jr., Joshua Ola-Joseph and Elijah Hawkins each had nine points in a balanced scoring attack. Pharrel Payne had seven points and tied a career high with four blocks.
Minnesota (3-1) shot just 39.7% but scored 10 of the final 11 points and 14 of the final 21.
“We can’t rely on making threes and making jump shots and scoring, you know, whatever it is, 89 points. That’s not a recipe for success. And so, we needed to find games where I kept telling them you have to win with your defense, we got to find ways to win with our defense, and I thought they really stepped up to the challenge,” Johnson said.
USC-Upstate (2-3) missed nine of its last 10 shots and did not score in the final 2:16. The Spartans shot 33.9%, including 29.4% in the final 20 minutes when they scored just 24 points.
“That defensive aggression we had we can definitely build off that and use in the other games,” Payne said.
It was a much better finish than Thursday when Minnesota was outscored 31-9 in blowing a 20-point second-half lead and falling 70-68 to Missouri.
“We knew we had to come back with some energy, especially it being a Saturday game at 1 o’clock,” Mitchell said.
That oomph had to be from within because The Barn was relatively subdued. USC-Upstate, predicted in a preseason poll to finish sixth in the nine-team Big South Conference, is not nearly the draw as a team from the Southeastern Conference.
“In that Missouri game it felt like the floor was shaking at some moments,” Mitchell said.
“We touched on it, we talked about the crowd’s not going to be the same the name on the jersey is not going to be the same, emotional game, quick prep,” Johnson said. “All the reasons to be sluggish and dead. And I just really want to challenge us defensively to have that energy and fight.”
Up 61-53, Garcia, who’d missed his previous four second-half shots, had a 3-point play with 1:52 left. The 6-foot-11 junior added a trey with 23 seconds left.
Mitchell made a pair of 3-pointers and Ola-Jospeh added a dunk as part a 12-4 spurt midway through the second half for a 53-43 Minnesota lead.
A 3-point play by Ola-Jospeh pushed the lead to 11 less than two minutes later, but the Gophers went scoreless for more than three minutes. Miguel Ayesa hit a 3 with 4:38 left to get USC-Upstate within five.
“Knowing how to win is a is a skill and we are we are figuring that out and we will need to continue to figure that out. And I think that’s what hurt us a little bit in Missouri,” Johnson said. “There’s difference between playing well, which I thought we really did for 30, 32 minutes, and then when you need to win you need to know how to do that, whether you have a lead and win that way or whether a team’s making a run, to get stops or convert offensively. … I loved that we had to go on a run and get there defensively.”
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