Gophers’ Dawson Garcia performs when ‘it’s not always pretty’

Dawson Garcia showed Monday night why his addition to the Gophers men’s basketball team was so important last spring.

The former Top 50 recruit in the 2020 class made the game-winning shot to propel Minnesota’s 62-61 overtime victory over California Baptist in the opening round of the SoCal Challenge in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

“I thought they did an unbelievable job of being competitors,” Gophers coach Ben Johnson said. “It’s not always pretty.”

Garcia knows that intimately. The Savage, Minn., native went to Marquette for one season and then transferred to North Carolina for one year before coming home to Minnesota. The versatile 6-foot-11 forward had a season-high 23 in his debut in the U’s season-opening win over Western Michigan, but the 19 points he scored in the loss to DePaul last week included a self-described “terrible” first half.

Garcia played only 25 minutes Monday due to foul trouble in both halves, and his 10 points and four rebound were season lows. But he stepped up when Minnesota needed it most.

“I just caught the ball, the team trusted in me,” Garcia said of his last shot. “I just felt the defender, and I just decided to take a power dribble and go get the bucket for the win.”

The Gophers (4-1) will play UNLV (5-0) at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday in the SoCal Challenge championship game. The Running Rebels beat Southern Illinois 56-49 in the late semifinal on Monday night. UNLV’s best win, over No. 21 Dayton a week ago, shows it will be a tough test for Minnesota.

Garcia was the Gophers’ top offensive option for the first four games, until Jamison Battle made his season debut against Cal Baptist. Garcia, who had foot surgery Oct. 28, was supposed to be on a playing limit of around 25 minutes, per the CBS Sports Network broadcast. But Garcia ended up playing 36 minutes.

“I played him way too many minutes, to be honest,” Johnson acknowledged. Battle’s shot looked rusty given the layoff. He was 4 for 15 shooting from the field, including 1 for 8 from 3-point range.

Minnesota helped stave off the Cal Baptist comeback with the play of freshman Pharrel Payne, who had his first career double-double (15 points and 13 rebounds). But Johnson was more impressed with another number; the 40 minutes the Park of Cottage Grove alum played and the focus it took to stay “locked in” for that long.

Payne came off the bench, but he has been counted on as if he’s a starter As Minnesota has gotten healthy with Battle’s return, their starting five appears to be trending toward: Garcia, Battle, Payne, Ta’Lon Cooper and Jaden Henley. Treyton Thompson, the current starter in the post, and Braeden Carrington would be the first players off the bench.

While Battle will often be counted on in crunch time going forward, Garcia showed he can be a go-to guy in those spots going forward.

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