Minnesota showed impressive offensive depth in its latest win, but defense continues to be the team’s focus.
The No. 22 Golden Gophers take on Portland in the semifinals of the 76 Classic on Friday.
Minnesota (4-0) advanced with an 82-73 victory over No. 12 Butler on Thursday. After the Golden Gophers won their first three games by an average of 34 points, a matchup with the Bulldogs was expected to be their biggest test.
Instead, Minnesota scored the most points allowed by a Butler opponent this season. They shot 50.0 percent overall and were 9 of 19 from 3-point range. The Bulldogs had held their first three opponents to an average of 58.7 points.
“When you beat a team ranked ahead of you, that’s a good thing,” coach Tubby Smith said. “We were the underdog coming in. This will go far, but it’s still early in the season. It will give us some confidence, which will go a long way towards the postseason.”
Smith’s team looked solid on offense even without much of a contribution from Lawrence Westbrook, who averaged 18.5 points in his first two games but was held to nine after missing the previous contest with a stomach virus. Three reserves finished in double figures to help Minnesota’s bench outscore Butler’s 46-8 while Damian Johnson scored a season-high 18 points, 14 in the second half.
“Everybody stepped up tonight. I think that’s big for us,” said Johnson, who made 7 of 8 from the field. “A lot of guys have confidence in each other. We don’t have to rely on one person to take over.”
Minnesota has four players averaging in double figures. Last season when the Gophers went 22-11, Westbrook was the only player to put up more than 10 per game.
While Minnesota may have more offensive options than last season, its reliance on defense remains the same. The Gophers, who gave up 61.6 points per game last season, are allowing only 54 per contest thus far this season while holding opponents to 33.9 percent shooting. They are also among the Division I leaders in forcing turnovers at 23.3 per game. Butler had 21 turnovers on Thursday.
“We’re a very good ball-pressure team. Our on-the-ball defense was pretty good,” Smith said. “We’re pretty quick and we’re pretty long and we’re very aggressive, always trying to get deflections.”
Up next for Minnesota is Portland, which advanced following a 74-47 rout of UCLA on Thursday. The Pilots held the Bruins to 19 first-half points and 32.7 percent shooting for the game.
Jared Stohl and T.J. Campbell each had 15 points while leading scorer Nik Raivio added 13 and five assists. The Pilots hit 11 of 19 3-pointers and shot 54.2 percent overall. They are shooting 53.7 percent from beyond the arc for the season, led by Campbell, who has connected on 9 of 15 from long range, including 3 of 5 on Thursday.
This is the first meeting between these teams.