The No. 13 ranked Minnesota Gophers led the Virginia Cavaliers at halftime 39-29 and should have given the Big Ten a 1-0 led in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Unfortunately, the Gophers lost their composure in the second half. As a result, the Gophers were soundly defeated by the Cavaliers and their brief flirtation among the top teams in the country has come to a very quick end.
Starting point guard Al Nolen missed tonight’s game due to a foot injury and he could miss several more weeks recuperating. Nolen is one of the premier perimeter defenders in the Big Ten and most commentators believed that his absence would be most acutely felt by the Gophers on the defensive end.
Nolen’s absence however was evident on the offensive end in the second half of tonight’s game.
Virginia came out aggressive in the second half and at the 9:22 mark in the second half, they had wrested the lead from Minnesota at 59-54.
The next four minutes of the game were fatal to the Gophers chances for success. Trevor Mbakwe and Blake Hoffarber each missed the front end of one-and-one free throw attempts. The Gophers also went one for eight during the five minute stretch with one turnover.
Minnesota saw the Cavaliers push their lead to 68-57. What made the four minute stretch so disheartening to Gopher fans was how quickly Minnesota settled for jump shots with getting the ball into the low post.
If Nolen had been available he likely would have taken control of the tempo of the game and made sure that each Gopher possession was a quality trip down the court.
Coach Tubby Smith called a timeout at the 5:23 mark to encourage his troops to regroup and make one final hard run at the Cavaliers.
The Gophers unfortunately came out immediately firing long jump shots and three point attempts completely abandoning the concept of chipping away at the lead by working the ball into the low post or at least moving the ball around the perimeter to get a good look.
Of the last 16 shots taken by Minnesota in the game only two of the shots came from a post player.
There was no need for the Gophers to panic being down 11 points with five minutes to go at home. However, Minnesota lost its composure.
The only post player that came to play tonight for Minnesota was Trevor Mbakwe who scored 18 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and had five blocked shots.
Ralph Sampson III was missing in action. Sampson scored only two points and grabbed only four rebounds.
On the defensive end, Sampson was played very timidly. Sampson was also late in creating double teams and providing help.
Sampson’s disappearance was highlighted by the fact that Virginia’s back-up Center Assane Sene had his best game of the season scoring seven points and six rebounds. Sene had not scored more than four points or garnered more than two rebounds prior to tonight’s game.
Sene was not the only player from Virginia’s bench that did damage against Minnesota. Guard Mustapha Farrakhan scored a career high 23 points including making all four of his three point attempts.
Virginia as a team shot very well as they made 10 of 13 shots from beyond the arc and made 25 of their 30 free throws.
Coach Tubby Smith acknowledged how well Virginia played after the game but he did not mince words about the defensive effort of this team. “That was probably as pathetic an effort defensively as we’ve had in a long time,” said Coach Smith.
Senior Co-Captain Hoffarber was in agreement noting, “It was probably one of our worst defensive games in a while. Hopefully, this will be a wakeup call for us.”