MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota toughened up for next week’s challenge with a determined rally past Richmond.
Escaping a second-half deficit and overcoming some early sloppiness might have been the most important for the Gophers on this night.
Rodney Williams scored 15 points with six rebounds and four assists to help Minnesota surge past Richmond 72-57 on Sunday after trailing for most of the first 75 percent of the game.
“We kept our foot on their neck toward that end, and we started buckling down defensively,” said Andre Hollins, who sparked the defining stretch when the Gophers pulled away. “And I think that’s what propelled us to win.”
Trevor Mbakwe had nine points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in 27 minutes, nearly doubling his previous playing-time high this season for the Gophers (4-0), who play ninth-ranked Duke next in a Thanksgiving weekend tournament in the Bahamas.
Hollins had 14 points, seven assists and three steals. His 3-pointer put the Gophers ahead for good 51-49 with 8:19 left.
Derrick Williams led the Spiders with 16 points, and Kendall Anthony added 13 points. The Spiders (3-1) were outrebounded 41-30 and squandered a 49-42 lead they built by holding the Gophers scoreless for more than four minutes.
Mbakwe has been starting on the bench after reconstructive surgery on his right knee ended last season for him after the seventh game. But he was on the floor with Williams, Joe Coleman and both Hollinses — Andre and Austin — for long periods in this game.
“It looked like he had his stamina and endurance. It looked like he was physically able to do it, so that’s a good sign for the team and for him,” coach Tubby Smith said.
Austin Hollins finished with 13 points, all in the second half, and Coleman had 10 points for the Gophers, who are 45-1 at Williams Arena in nonconference games in six seasons under Smith.
His preference has been to load the schedule with mid- and low-major teams and mostly limit the big-time opponents to neutral-site games at tropical holiday tournaments. That includes this three-game, eight-team Battle 4 Atlantis event next weekend, with Louisville, Duke, Missouri and Memphis among the heavyweight entrants. Northern Iowa, Stanford and Virginia Commonwealth are the others.
“The better the competition the more fun the games are, so we’re definitely ready,” Williams said.
Richmond sure made Minnesota work for this one, and the Spiders didn’t even make much happen from 3-point range, which is one of their strengths. They went 3 for 14 behind the arc in the first half and finished 4 for 20.
With help from 11 Gophers turnovers in the first 12 minutes, the Spiders led 22-13 with about 7½ minutes left until the break before the Gophers built some badly needed momentum. Richmond had 10 steals before halftime, with relentless ball pressure and a hard-to-figure perimeter zone scheme that got the Gophers out of their rhythm. Their big men accounted for 11 of the 19 turnovers in the game.
“I thought our effort was terrific, based on the way we battled and scrapped,” Richmond coach Chris Mooney said. “We came up with so many steals. I am proud of how we played.”
Williams had three baskets in a 96-second stretch. He then tipped a ball as he fell backward at the key to keep an offensive rebound alive and set up a dunk by Mbakwe off a perimeter pass from Andre Hollins that cut the Richmond lead to 25-22.
“The way he goes — his attitude and his demeanor — is contagious,” Smith said of Williams.
Mbakwe screamed at the student section in celebration upon landing after the dunk.
“That’s probably the first time I actually felt like it was a meaningful play. The crowd was ready for us tonight. That was a big key for us,” he said.
Coleman’s free throw made it 30-29 Minnesota, the first lead by the home team in more than 16 minutes.
Minnesota’s only nonconference home loss under Smith came to Virginia in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge two years ago.
The Spiders opened their season with home victories over Liberty, North Carolina-Wilmington and Hampton, holding all three opponents to 58 points or fewer in their first 3-0 start in six years. The last time they opened with four wins in a row was 1985.
With four of their top five scorers returned from the 2011-12 squad that finished 16-16, the Spiders were picked to finish 10th out of 16 teams in the preseason Atlantic 10 Conference poll by the coaches and media covering the league.
During nine seasons under Mooney, the Spiders have beaten a team from each of the major six conferences, including 11 of their last 17 entering this game. They play at No. 7 Kansas on Dec. 18. Their last win over a Big Ten opponent was two years ago against then-No. 8 Purdue.
The only other time Richmond and Minnesota met was 2002 in the NIT, a 67-66 victory here by the Spiders.
“It was a good atmosphere against a good team. I think we all wish we would have done a little bit better, but we did play well,” Mooney said.
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