MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Their confidence shaken and their record bruised by the rugged Big Ten, Rodney Williams and the Minnesota Golden Gophers badly needed a breather.
Nebraska’s arrival couldn’t have come at a better time.
Williams snapped out of a funk to score 23 points and No. 23 Minnesota got a much-needed confidence boost with an 84-65 victory over Nebraska on Tuesday night.
“There’s definitely relief,” said Williams, who was 8 of 13 from the field. “When you lose four in a row and come home to play, you have to protect home court. For us to do it in impressive fashion like we did, I think it’s a big confidence builder.”
Andre Hollins scored 14 points and Austin Hollins had 13 points and five assists for the Golden Gophers (16-5, 4-4 Big Ten), who snapped the four-game losing skid that caused them to plummet in the rankings.
“Our psyche was shaken pretty bad,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. “I thought we really had just shot ourselves in the foot in every loss we’ve had. Tonight we did a better job.”
Ray Gallegos scored 30 points for Nebraska (11-11, 2-7), which committed 13 turnovers to offset some impressive shooting. The Huskers shot 54.5 percent for the game, but were outrebounded 36-19 and forced just six turnovers by Minnesota.
Gallegos, who made 12 of 17 shots including six 3-pointers, didn’t get much help. Brandon Ubel scored 13 points and Shavon Shields had 10.
The Gophers started the season 15-1, with the only loss to Duke. Expectations started to swell as the victories piled up, and they climbed to No. 8 in the AP Top 25 before they hit the skids. Losses to Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin threatened to spoil things as the Gophers followed a familiar script under Smith.
Three years ago, the Gophers lost six of eight games in Big Ten play. Two years ago they went a stretch of 10 losses in 11 games and last season they dropped the final six games. During their latest swoon, Smith seemed to anger some players, Williams included, with his blunt assessment of their failings after losses.
Williams scored just two points in the loss to Wisconsin last weekend continuing a troubling slump for the athletic power forward. He scored eight of the team’s first nine points against overmatched Nebraska, throwing down two dunks in the process to get the Gophers rolling.
“When he dunked on the first possession, I thought to myself, ‘Uh oh, here we go,'” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “Looks like the gut feeling was right. He was outstanding.”
After a brief rest, Williams didn’t stop. He kept attacking the overwhelmed Cornhuskers, even adding a rare 3-pointer to the mix. It was an encouraging sign for the Gophers, who desperately need their high flyer to get back to the difference-maker he was during the nonconference portion of the schedule if they want to get back into the hunt. But dominating lesser competition has never been an issue for Williams. He’s always been able to use his superior athleticism to leap overwhelm them.
It’s when the Gophers are going toe-to-toe with bigger, more physical opponents that Williams tends to disappear. He combined for nine points in two losses to the Badgers and Northwestern last week, going 3 for 17 from the field and finding it difficult to get to the basket for easy dunks.
“We did some things today to try to get him some freedom to come out and move a bit more,” Smith said. “He’s been going up against some pretty big guys. Tonight he didn’t have to do that. They didn’t really muscle him. … He’s capable of doing that all the time. That’s my expectations of Rodney.”
The Huskers did their best to make a game of it, shooting 64 percent in the first half. Gallegos scored 20 points, hitting four 3-pointers, and Nebraska got back in the game when Smith subbed out all five starters midway through the first half.
But the Huskers turnovers made it difficult for Miles to slow down the pace, a strategy that Northwestern and Wisconsin used to great success against the Gophers. Williams’ final soaring dunk gave the Gophers a 73-53 lead with 5:05 to go.
“Lord knows we’ve had enough negatives over the last two weeks,” Smith said. “Enough garbage. But garbage in, garbage out.”
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