Garcia returns as Gophers’ focal point for late-season stretch

A week before he was cleared to play last Saturday, Dawson Garcia wanted to be on the court. The Gophers' leading scorer and rebounder thought his injured right foot felt much better. He knew his teammates needed him.

Still, the 6-11 former Prior Lake star left his uniform in the locker room and sat on the bench in street clothes. Garcia was determined to be ready for the next time out after missing five straight games with a bone bruise.

"I'm glad I had people around me to steer me in the right direction," Garcia said after his 23-point performance in his first game back in Saturday's 76-69 loss vs. Penn State. "I have a feeling if I came back a little earlier, I'd be sitting out for much longer."

The Gophers (7-18, 1-14 Big Ten), who play Wednesday at Maryland, showed patience with Garcia's injury. The result was the North Carolina transfer displaying little to no rust in his first two games back, including with 18 points and eight rebounds in Monday's 78-69 loss at Illinois.

There were a few awkward falls vs. Penn State and Illinois where the Gophers had to hold their breath when Garcia got up limping, but he didn't let that slow him down.

"Being able to have games and stretches when he's healthy, to be able to play well and help our team, that's important to him," Coach Ben Johnson said on his Tuesday radio show. "He's all about winning."

Garcia's presence to again be the focal point of opposing defenses allowed one of the Big Ten's best scorers last season to break out of a slump. Junior Jamison Battle erupted for a season-high 31 points Monday against the Illini, including 22 points in the second half.

Battle had been held under double figures in scoring for three straight games, which never happened before in his career. Figuring out how to find his rhythm without Garcia in the lineup was difficult, especially with no other consistent offensive threat on the floor.

Going into Monday, Battle had been 3-for-18 from three-point range during a four-game stretch. But the second 30-point game of his career came on 11-for-20 shooting vs. Illinois, including 4-for-9 from long distance.

Despite his struggles offensively, Battle focused on being a dependable defender and tried not to dwell on the losses piling up with fellow team captain Garcia sidelined.

"You learn from everything when you succeed and when you fail," Battle said last week. "There has been a lot of ups and downs this year. And I think everyone has learned a bit about themselves and a bit about the team."

Garcia was proud of his teammates for competing and trying hard to make up for his absence. Along with his return Saturday, freshman guard Braeden Carrington also came back after missing seven games with a leg injury.

Carrington's transition back has not been as smooth as Garcia's. The Park Center product grabbed six rebounds vs. Illinois off the bench. But he's scoreless, playing a combined 25 minutes, in the last two games.

"Once the games go on, he'll get more into shape," Garcia said. "It's tough to miss 'X' amount of games and come back. The feel of everything is off the first time going live for him, but he's only going to get better."

Without Garcia in the frontcourt, freshmen Pharrel Payne (18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists vs. Penn State) and Joshua Ola-Joseph (double figures in four of the last five games) saw their playing time and roles expand. So, the Gophers could see growth in the future with them gaining experience.

Even though it has not translated into victories yet, Garcia hopes his presence and the improvement of his teammates without him can lead to a stronger finish for the Gophers this season.

"We want to finish the year on the right note with some wins," Garcia said. "Whatever comes next, we want to keep building and always finish things the right way."