It was a back-and-forth battle, but the Golden Gopher men’s basketball team outlasted the South Dakota State Jackrabbits 78-72 Wednesday night at Williams Arena. The game featured nine ties and five lead changes, but the Gophers utilized excellent free throw shooting down the stretch to avoid the upset and improve to 7-1 for the first time since 2000-01.
Down by as many as nine points in the first half, Tubby Smith’s Gophers rebounded to take a 38-37 lead going into halftime. Despite numerous efforts to put away the pesky Jackrabbits (now 3-6 overall), Minnesota’s largest second half lead was just six points and they trailed with as little as 6:48 remaining in the contest. But the Gophers hit 12 of their final 15 free throws in the second half to earn their seventh victory in eight tries this season.
Minnesota was led by Dan Coleman’s team-high 24 points on 10-for-14 shooting, but it was the Jackrabbits’ Garrett Callahan that nearly single-handedly kept South Dakota State in the game. Callahan had a game-high 28 points on 11-for-18 shooting (including three three-pointers) and was helped by teammate Kai Williams’ 18 points and seven rebounds.
Mohamed Berte also chipped in 11 boards for SDSU as they out-rebounded Minnesota 41-26 for the contest, including 21-9 in the second half.
In the early going, Minnesota’s trademark pressure defense was handled deftly by the Jackrabbits, and some uncharacteristically sloppy play by the Golden Gophers put them in a 28-19 hole with eight minutes to go in the first half. Minnesota forced two of their seven first-half turnovers to tie the game at 31, and two Coleman free throws at the 3:11 mark gave the Gophers their largest lead of the first half at 35-31.
Minnesota led by as many as six in the first part of the second half, but Callahan scored eight points in a two-minute stretch to keep the Jackrabbits within reach. The seesaw contest continued in the final 10 minutes of play, with a Kai Williams dunk at 7:37 tying the game at 63 apiece.
But excellent free throw shooting by Tollackson (3-for-3 down the stretch, 6-of-7 for the game), and key one-and-one conversions by Lawrence McKenzie, Damian Johnson and Al Nolen coupled with four forced turnovers in the final six minutes allowed Minnesota to escape with the win.
Johnson tied a career-high with four blocks and added 10 points for the Gophers, while McKenzie and Blake Hoffarber contributed six assists apiece. Minnesota remained a perfect 6-0 on the season at Williams Arena. Tollackson added 14 points.
The Gophers also shot a season-high 56.2 percent (27-48) from the field and won the battle of benches a whopping 26-13 on the night. The Golden Gophers’ bench has outscored their opponents’ in every game this season.
Minnesota now enjoys a 10-day break for final exams before returning to the Barn for a Dec. 22 showdown with Santa Clara. The Gophers will also travel to Las Vegas Dec. 29-30 for the annual round-robin “Duel in the Desert” tournament.