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MEN’S BASKETBALL: Gophers hope lessons learned in first game vs. Michigan State pay off now

In the conference opener on Dec. 8, Michigan State came out fast and withstood a Minnesota rally to win 75-67 at Williams Arena.

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Indiana
Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach Ben Johnson talks with guard Luke Loewe in the second half against the Indiana Hoosiers on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Bloomington, Indiana.
Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team looked for ways to bond as they stayed on the road between Sunday’s 73-60 loss at Indiana and Wednesday’s game at Michigan State.

With the pandemic, options were limited, so they grabbed some food on Monday night and watched college football’s national championship game, where Georgia topped Alabama 33-18.

Minnesota head coach Ben Johnson, a former high school football player at DeLaSalle High School, said there are takeaways in how Georgia overcame a loss to Alabama in the SEC title game in early December and how Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart kept coming for Nick Saban after being 0-4 against his mentor.

“They blocked all that out,” Johnson said Tuesday. “They knew in the fourth quarter they were going to flip it and this was going to be the change. The mind-set piece to that is powerful. If you don’t believe as a unit, then there is not a lot of Xs and Os that matter. If you have a bunch of guys in that locker room that believe until the very end, (then) a lot of good things can happen.”

The Gophers (10-3, 1-3 Big Ten) are working to keep the faith after dropping two straight conference games, including Illinois on Jan. 4, Minnesota will play a Michigan State team that has won eight straight to sit atop the Big Ten standings at 4-0 and 13-2 overall. Tipoff is 6 p.m. Wednesday from the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich.

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“I think (the players) understand that we’ve lost to two really good teams, and obviously you don’t want to get into a lull or get used to (losing), and I don’t sense that at all,” Johnson said. “They know it’s early and we got a bunch of games coming up, and they know it’s a process. With each game, we are still building.”

In the conference opener on Dec. 8, Michigan State came out fast and withstood a Minnesota rally to win 75-67 at Williams Arena. Johnson felt the Gophers’ defense didn’t show up early in the first match-up against the Spartans, but said he saw the requisite mind-set on the road against the Hoosiers last weekend.

“We’ll learn from that; we’ve shown them that on film,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to be more assertive on both ends, especially to start. … Guys understand what it’s like to play against them. That is the positive about the quick turnaround. They remember that game pretty vividly.”

Michigan State is known for its pace of play, especially in transition, and physical style. “None of that will be a surprise,” Johnson said. “I think our guys will be ready.”

During their extended road trip, the Gophers have done more film-study session walk-throughs and additional shooting. Like most programs, poor shooting often leads to defeats; that’s been the story for Minnesota, primarily from 3-point range.

Minnesota is shooting 37.7% from deep in its 10 wins but just 22.2% in the three defeats. As a team, the Gophers are shooting 34.1% from 3 this season, and each shooter was below that mark in the Hoosiers loss.

Jamison Battle was the best (3 for 10), followed by Payton Willis (2-8), Luke Loewe (0-4) and E.J. Stephens (0-3). Like the first three quarters of the college football championship game, Johnson said, it might not be pretty, but what matters is how you finish.

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