After his struggled squad to win its first game as a ranked team since 2002, Minnesota coach Tubby Smith looks for his Golden Gophers to avoid a letdown on Sunday afternoon at Williams Arena as they host his alma mater, High Point.
The No. 23 Golden Gophers (11-0) are coming off an 80-71 victory over Southeastern Louisiana on Tuesday night. The victory matched allowed Minnesota to match its best start since 1976-77. The last time the Golden Gophers opened a season with 12 straight victories was 1948-49 as they won their first 13 en route to an 18-3 record.
Tuesday’s game was Minnesota’s first as a Top 25 team since it was No. 25 on Dec. 22, 2002. But unlike that contest, a 90-81 loss to then-No. 5 Oregon, the Golden Gophers held off the Lions behind 15 points apiece from Blake Hoffarber and junior Lawrence Westbrook.
“This is my first time, and I think it’s everybody else’s first time, being ranked in college, too,” said Westbrook, the Golden Gophers’ leading scorer at 13.0 points per game. “Everybody sees us with the ranking. Teams that aren’t ranked, especially, have a target on us and want to beat us so we’re going to get everybody’s best. That’s what happened today.”
Minnesota had its third-best shooting performance of the season at 51.8 percent, but the Lions hit 48.2 from the field - the highest percentage against the Golden Gophers this season - and trailed by just four at halftime.
“It’s just like anything else. You have to experience certain things and you have to learn from this,” said Smith, a 1973 High Point graduate and four-year basketball letter winner for the Panthers (4-7). “I think we learned something tonight about being the hunted.”
Minnesota’s opponents are shooting just 39.1 percent this season. High Point has shot better than 40 percent in four games—all wins—and is 0-7 when held under that mark.
The Golden Gophers are looking for an easy win before facing a tough start to Big Ten play, hosting 11th-ranked Michigan State on Wednesday and No. 15 Ohio State next Saturday.
High Point, meanwhile, is seeking its first victory over a Big Ten opponent. In their last game against a Big Ten team, the Panthers lost 67-53 to Michigan on Dec. 7, 2004.
Since joining Division I in 1999-2000, High Point is 0-8 against ranked teams, losing by an average of 34.2 points.
The Panthers are playing the first of three straight road games following a 64-61 home loss to Youngstown State on Dec. 19. High Point missed 12-of-21 from the foul line en route to its third loss in four games, and is among the nation’s worst free-throw shooting teams at 57.3 percent.
High Point held the Penguins to 35.6 percent from the field - the sixth opponent it has held to less than 37 percent this season - but faces a Golden Gophers squad that is shooting 50.7 percent in its last seven games.
The Panthers posted a season-high 17 blocks against Youngstown State behind career highs from Cruz Daniels (eight) and Steadman Short (six).
In his first career start, Nick Barbour led High Point with 21 points. The freshman guard is averaging 10.5 points, second on the team to junior Eugene Harris (13.5).
Though this is the first meeting between these schools, Smith went 3-0 against High Point while he was coach at Kentucky.