Slow to start, Gophers pull away in a big way over UW-Green Bay

·4 min read

Gophers faithful didn't have much to get excited about in the first half Wednesday until E.J. Stephens' three-pointer beat the halftime buzzer to grab the lead against Wisconsin-Green Bay.

At least that's what fans thought until officials overturned the shot to force Ben Johnson's team to go into halftime trailing 29-28 to a Horizon League bottom feeder.

The first-year Gophers coach could have easily jumped all over his players for overlooking arguably the weakest opponent on their schedule, but he let them figure out how to wake up in the second half in a 72-56 nonconference victory at Williams Arena.

"I told them I'm not going to lose my mind," Johnson said. "But I think they're a mature group. They knew the right response. I think it starts with you've got to have that inner drive. You got to have that inner juice yourself."

The Gophers (10-1) changed the game time to 4 p.m. to be televised on national TV, but an announced crowd of 10,302 still came out to see a poor-shooting start by everyone not named Jamison Battle.

The sophomore forward had 15 of his 23 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the first half, but the rest of Minnesota's team went 4-for-19 from the field, including 0-for-8 from three-point range.

The Phoenix (2-9), who lost to Wisconsin 72-34 in Madison on Nov. 12, hadn't beaten a Big Ten opponent since upsetting the Badgers in 2009.

Green Bay coach Will Ryan, the son of Hall of Fame coach Bo Ryan, had high praise for the Gophers entering the game, saying, "They've got a chance to finish pretty high in the Big Ten."

But Ryan's players weren't intimidated, leading 25-19 with about 4½ minutes left in the first half after winning the rebounding battle and outscoring the Gophers in points in the paint with easy looks off their swing offense.

Battle's three cutting the margin to 29-28 with just under two minutes left was the first of the game from long distance for the Gophers, who hit nine first-half threes in last week's 79-71 victory vs. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

With more than a week off between games, the Gophers seemed to sleepwalk through the first half, but Battle said the players didn't need a pep talk from coaches. They pumped each other up coming out of the tunnel at halftime.

"We always know what needs to be done," Battle said. "It could've been a little bit better, but we still came out and responded. Brought our own juice and brought our own energy."

The 6-7 former DeLaSalle standout's emphatic baseline dunk drew cheers from the Barn crowd and Minnesota's bench to ignite a 12-2 run to open the second half.

Green Bay hung around until midway through the period, but Stephens' three-point play and Sean Sutherlin's slashing score highlighted an 8-0 run to make it 61-46 with about six minutes remaining. Sutherlin scored 11 of his 12 points in the second half.

Senior captains Payton Willis (14 points and 10 assists) and Eric Curry (11 points and 10 rebounds) both had double-doubles, with Curry's being the first of his career.

The Gophers outscored the Phoenix 44-27 in the second half on 62% shooting, including 5-for-7 from three-point range.

Taking care of the ball was a must for Johnson's squad coming off a 28-turnover performance against Corpus Christi, the most for the program since 2007. They finished with only five against Green Bay.

Entering the season as the projected last-place team in the Big Ten, the Gophers heard praises for weeks for being the conference's biggest surprise so far, especially after the 75-65 victory at Michigan on Dec. 11.

Minnesota will again be heavily favored at home against Alcorn State on Dec. 29 before Big Ten play resumes Jan. 2 vs. Illinois at Williams Arena.

Curry said the way the Gophers finished Wednesday will be how they need to play next time out for 40 minutes to keep improving before re-entering conference play.

"The team that we were in the first half of this game wasn't a team that was trying to get better," Curry said. "We were just going through the motions. In these games, you've got to take advantage of development. The second half we kind of did that."

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