In a season with a number of close losses, the Gophers didn’t leave Wednesday’s border battle to chance. Minnesota ended a two-game losing streak and a four-game home losing streak to the Wisconsin Badgers, never trailing and leading by as many as 22 on the way to a 70-52 throttling at Williams Arena.
Payton Willis led four starters in double-figures with 21 points in what was perhaps Minnesota’s most impressive win of the year. The win gets them back to .500 in the Big Ten at 6-6.
“This rivalry means so much to our fans, to our home state,” said coach Richard Pitino after the game. “You can’t let people come in here and take over your building.”
After Daniel Oturu said this was just another game, Willis chimed in that Oturu woke him up blasting music this morning, saying they had to win the rivalry game.
Here’s how they did just that:
Team play. It was also the team’s most balanced game of the year. Willis was 7-10, burying five threes on the way to a season-high 21 points. Oturu had 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 4 blocks. Carr had 12 points, 10 assists, and 9 rebounds. Gabe Kalscheur chipped in 11 points. Alihan Demir had 7 points and 5 rebounds. Jarvis Omersa stole a post entry pass. Isaiah Ihnen finished a nifty alley-oop from Carr. The team shot 41%, both overall and from three.
“Everybody on this team can help us,” said Oturu. “Everyone is ready to come in and play as hard as they can. We got a special group of guys that are ready to fight.”
Early success. The Gophers haven’t played their best in the first half recently, but that was decidedly not the case against Wisconsin. Oturu scored in the paint on the first possession, Willis buried a three on the next, and Demir had an offensive rebound and a put-back on the third.
A few plays later, Oturu drew a double team and kicked out to an open Willis, who hit another three with the shot clock winding down, followed by a Demir steal at the other end leading to a breakaway dunk to get the Barn rocking and give the Gophers a 14-8 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
All in all, Minnesota shot 55% from the field (18-33) and 50% from distance (5-10) in the first half, using 11-2 and 12-3 scoring runs to turn a two-point game into a 13-point lead at the break.
“Minnesota really set the tone early,” said Wisconsin coach Greg Gaard, succinctly.
Payton Willis. When Minnesota makes their 3-point shots they’re a legitimately good team, and that was again the case tonight behind the play of Willis. After battling shoulder and ankle injuries for much of the first half of the season, he came out in a big way against the Badgers, finishing with a season-high 21 points on 7-10 shooting, going 5-7 from beyond the arc, adding 5 rebounds, 2 steals and finishing with a +20 overall.
“Even though I’ve been in a slump the past few games, the guys instill confidence in me to shoot when I’m open,” said Willis, who drew heaps of praise from his coach and Oturu after the game.
Turnovers. Wisconsin entered the game averaging the fewest turnovers in the Big Ten, but it was Minnesota who won the turnover battle, forcing 7 while giving up just 5, including only one in the first half. Moreover, the Gophers gave up just one point off of turnovers, easily their lowest of the season. Carr, playing all 40 minutes, had just three to go with 10 assists.
“You have to take care of the basketball, it’s the number one thing,” said Pitino, who called his point guard’s performance “phenomenal.”
Defense. And while the offense carried the U, defense was solid, too. Stingy play held Wisconsin, which just knocked off Michigan State on Sunday and had won five of seven, to just 19-67 shooting (28%) and only 22% in the second half, including and an abhorrent 1-16 from three after the break.
Wisconsin’s starting backcourt of D’Mitrik Trice and Brad Davison combined to finish just 4-16, and the Gopher guards deserve a lot of credit for keeping their counterparts in check.
“We were just connected tonight,” said Willis of his team’s defensive performance. “It felt like everyone was moving as one. We were just locked in.”
They’ll look to keep the momentum going against yet another ranked foe. Next up is a road trip to State College on Sunday, where the 22nd-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions, winners of five in a row, await.