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Minnesota turns up pressure on Nebraska to stop losing streak

The SportsXchange

MINNEAPOLIS -- After four consecutive losses and 15-spot free fall in the Associated Press rankings, Minnesota made certain its losing streak would not reach five games. And the Gophers did it by turning up the heat.

No. 23 Minnesota pressed Nebraska from the moment the ball was tipped Tuesday night and the decision couldn't have been better. The Gophers tipped passes, created turnover after turnover that led to dunk after dunk.

As a result, Minnesota led by double digits just seven minutes into the game and were never threatened in an 84-65 victory over the Cornhuskers.

It was an important turnaround for a Minnesota team that was ranked as high as No. 8 before suffering consecutive losses to Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin. After sliding all the way into seventh in the Big Ten standings, the Gophers (16-5, 4-4 Big Ten) needed a victory.

"We were able to press, force some turnovers, get some easy baskets," forward Trevor Mbakwe said. "It kind of set the tone. You don't want teams like that to kind of linger around and give them hope."

Rodney Williams -- Minnesota's extremely athletic wing -- was the biggest beneficiary of both Tubby Smith's decision to press and to simplify the Gophers offensive game plan. With space to operate offensively, Williams scored 19 points in the first half and finished with 23 to lead Minnesota.

"I can't remember the last time we pressed that much," Williams said.

The offensive outburst reversed what had been a disappointing trend for Williams. In road losses at Northwestern and Wisconsin, Williams scored a total of nine points.

"Last four or five games, I wasn't playing my basketball," Williams said. "To come out and play this way was a big confidence boost."

While the pressure was effective against the Cornhuskers (11-11, 2-7), Gophers coach Tubby Smith didn't give the impression that pressure defense would be the norm during the second half of the Big Ten season.

"I'm not naive enough to think we can do it against a team like Wisconsin or Michigan," Smith said.

Smith echoed the importance of the victory.

"Our psyche had been shaken pretty bad," Smith said. "We shot ourselves in the foot in almost every loss."

Ray Gallegos did everything he could to get Nebraska back into the game after the slow start. Gallegos made six 3-pointers and finished with a career-high 30 points.

"The press kind of bothered us," Gallegos said. "When we did break it, some good things came out of it, but never throughout the whole game got it going."

The Huskers cut Minnesota's lead to single digits late in the first half, but the Gophers put the game away shortly after halftime.

Andre Hollins scored eight points of his 14 points in the first four-plus minutes after the break and his 3-pointer with 15:22 to play gave the Gophers a 54-40 lead. From there, the Gophers cruised to their most lopsided Big Ten victory this season.

"It's definitely a relief," Williams said. "You lose four in a row and you come out and you want to protect home court. For us to come out and do it and do it in convincing fashion like we did was big for us. It was a big confidence boost for us."

NOTES: While the Gophers entered the game having lost four consecutive games, they were not in danger of establishing a mark for length of losing streaks. Just last season the Gophers lost six games in a row, a streak that ended any chance of reaching the NCAA tournament. In 2011, Minnesota lost 10 of 11 to end the season. ... With a first-year head coach, it seemed reasonable to think that Nebraska would improve as the season went along. That has been the case offensively. The Cornhuskers averaged only 47 points per game in their first four Big Ten games, but followed that up by scoring 59.8 ppg over the past four. ... For the Gophers, this game began a stretch in which they play four of five games at Williams Arena. ... This game started a stretch for Nebraska in which the Huskers play four ranked teams -- Minnesota, Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan State -- in five games.

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