MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Golden Gophers were eager to prove they belong in the headlines for beating top teams, not simply for trouble off the court.
Blake Hoffarber’s 26 points and sharpened perimeter defense helped the Gophers outlast eighth-ranked Purdue 70-67 on Thursday night.
“It felt like the rim was just a little bigger than normal,” Hoffarber said.
The game itself was just a little bigger than normal, too, given the team’s tumultuous week. Hoffarber went 10 for 15 from the field and Al Nolen added 13 points, eight assists and three steals for the Gophers (13-4, 2-3), who watched leading scorer and rebounder Trevor Mbakwe get dropped from the starting lineup due to a misdemeanor charge of violating a harassment restraining order.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our kids and their ability to stay focused and overcome some of the distractions we’ve had of late,” coach Tubby Smith said. “It all happens within their heart and within their minds.”
JaJuan Johnson had 29 points and 11 rebounds for the Boilermakers (15-2, 4-1 Big Ten), whose 10-game winning streak ended. They also lost for the first time in nine conference road games, dating to last January.
This was only the second game for Purdue that was decided by 10 points or less. Ryne Smith, coming off a co-Big Ten Player of the Week award for averaging 19 points over two victories, made just one of four 3-pointers.
“I don’t think we had great, great understanding of what was going on,” coach Matt Painter said. “JaJuan Johnson needs to touch the ball more inside late in the game.”
Mbakwe had a lot to do with that. He entered less than 4 minutes in — just seconds after students started a “We want Trevor!” chant. Smith said he didn’t hear it. Mbakwe, who had 10 rebounds, seven points and two blocks in 31 minutes, wasn’t made available for comment.
“He’s a stud. He’s tough to handle,” Painter said.
Mbakwe was arrested Monday night after sending a message on Facebook to a former girlfriend who filed the order against him. Smith and athletic director Joel Maturi decided not to suspend Mbakwe, who sat out last season while an unrelated court case dragged out, but Smith had stern words for the junior forward and told him to stop using social media.
Lewis Jackson had 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists for Purdue, countering Hoffarber and making sure the second half was seesaw and not one-sided.
Nolen’s 3-pointer near the 3-minute mark was the game’s final score, giving the Gophers a three-point edge. The second-worst team in the conference in defending the 3-pointer, Minnesota cranked up the intensity around the arc in the second half, holding Purdue to 2 for 12 from 3-point range after the Boilermakers made five of their first six.
E’Twaun Moore’s layup with 9:21 left gave the Boilermakers a 61-57 lead, but that was their last basket of the game. That 13-for-13 mark from the free throw line and 38-28 rebounding advantage weren’t enough.
“I had some shots. They just didn’t go down,” Moore said. “The same shots I’ve had before.”
Mbakwe’s presence was huge inside for the Gophers; he blocked a layup by Jackson at the half-minute mark. Nolen got the ball and missed the front end of his 1-and-1 free throw, but D.J. Byrd and Jackson missed pressured, off-balance 3-pointers on the other end after the Boilermakers called timeout to discuss their final set.
With fellow senior star Moore struggling to score — he went 1 for 14 from the floor against Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament last year and finished 2 for 14 in this one — the 6-foot-10 Johnson gave the Gophers fits trying to defend him.
Using his exceptional wingspan and soft touch, he hit shots from nearly everywhere — turnarounds, from the top of the key, underneath — and had 18 points by halftime.
The Gophers, who got a couple of important late baskets by Ralph Sampson III and a strong game by freshman reserve Chip Armelin, won despite another series of disheveled offensive possessions. They made up for the half-court deficiencies against one of the Big Ten’s stingiest defenses with a good fast break and a hot streak by their sharp shooter Hoffarber.
He set the tone for the second half with a 3-pointer from the wing that stretched the lead to 46-40 after Sampson dived for a loose ball and directed it toward his teammate.
“It’s always tough to stop a shooter when they get in a good rhythm,” Johnson said. “Once they get hot, it’s definitely hard to cool them down. Credit to Blake and his teammates: They really found him in some key situations.”
Hoffarber wasn’t fully healthy last season, fighting a sports hernia, and Smith praised his stamina and conditioning as well as the work he’s done to get open more often inside the arc.
“He looked like he was very focused, as all our players were tonight,” Smith said. “They looked like they were hungry to get a win and show that we’re a good team.”
Still, the Gophers feel they should be unbeaten, stung by close losses at Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State.
“Pretty much all those games, I thought, were in our hands,” Hoffarber said.
WCCO’s Interview With Blake Hoffarber
WCCO’s Interview With Tubby Smith
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