Sunday, January 13, 2008

Well Worth The Trip: Tollackson Impresses Throughout In Comeback Win

The Golden Gophers of one year ago would have hung their collective heads. They would have sulked back to the bench during timeouts. And they certainly wouldn't have shown the backbone and intensity needed to comeback from 16 down, with 13 minutes to play, in a hostile environment no less.

That's exactly what the Gophers accomplished Saturday afternoon, as I watched from 7 rows back slightly adjacent to the basket nearest the Penn State bench. Sure, the Penn State Nittany Lions performed like a team that didn't know how to win. They were miserable at the free-throw line and seemed to relax after building a double-digit lead. They gave away the game as the Gophers took it, leaving State College with a 76-73 win.

Spencer Tollackson played like a man all afternoon. He was the interior presence the Gophers needed to beat an athletic, but short in stature team like Penn State. He finished with 19 points, including 5-5 from the free throw line, and five rebounds. Tollackson gets my game ball for playing a hard-fought 34 minutes--many of which he played while in foul trouble--of aggressive, hard-nosed basketball.

There are other superlatives to lend out. Tubby Smith out coached Ed DeChellis. Tubby ramped up the tempo when the Gophers fell behind big in the second half. The faster pace allowed the Gophers to extend the game by ensuring they had more possessions to make the comeback. Tubby also had to mix and match his lineup all afternoon because the Gophers committed an astonishing 28 fouls (more on this later). Tubby also did well to mix up his defenses down the stretch. And the fact that he started Damian Johnson over Jamal Abu-Shamala was a great sign. Johnson was one of two Gophers who were capable playing Geary Claxton one-on-one.

Perhaps most impressively was the play of freshmen Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber. Hoffarber made a handful of clutch threes in succession to bring the Gophers back at the Bryce Jordan Center. He finished with 19 points in 25 minutes--more time than two starters. We needed his offense Saturday and Tubby knew it and gave him a chance to bring the team back.

And then there was Nolen. The freshman point guard, again, was up-and-down Saturday. He made an insanely stupid behind-the-back pass while in the middle of a slew of traffic in the lane during the first half. While he racked up seven assists, his five turnovers were of the sloppy variety. But .... Nolen was the hero against the Nittany Lions. With under 10 seconds to play, after the Gophers had previously handed Penn State numerous chances to win the game, Nolen jumped a bad pass from Claxton on the perimeter and dribbled the length of the floor before he was fouled. An intentional was called and Nolen nailed 3-4 free throws down the stretch to ice the game.

Earlier in the game, after the ill-advised behind the back pass, I was cursing Nolen from the stands. And at other times this year he has frustrated me. But like those other games, Nolen has tended to find a way to redeem himself. He's still playing up and down basketball, but the Gophers were at their best when he was on the floor.

With about 13 minutes left in the game, I looked at Miss PJS and said something like "Well, I'm glad we drove 2.5 hours for this." At the time, of course, the Gophers were on the verge of being run out of the BJC. Miss PJS said "They just have to give the ball all the time to Hoffarber." The Gophers did that, and with the help of Tubby, Tollackson, Nolen and others, the Gophers completed a great comeback.

Other notes from the Saturday win:

** Dan Coleman had another double-double Saturday with 10 points and 11 rebounds. But of the three Minnesota seniors, Coleman was the one who wilted down the stretch and reverted to some old Dan Monson ingrained habits. With under one minute to play, Penn State was at the line. As was the case all afternoon, the Nittany Lions missed. But this time, Coleman didn't box out. He didn't put his ass into Jamelle Cornley (I think, don't remember, it could have been Claxton) and the Nittany Lions came away with an offensive rebound. Coleman complained that he was pushed from behind, and he might have had a case, but as I stood just rows from the play, my reaction was Coleman didn't do all he could to secure the rebound. He didn't box out with energy.

While he was perfect from the free-throw line, Coleman again struggled offensively. But as has been his norm against more athletic competition, Coleman has faded away on his jumpers. And he didn't take the ball to the basket. The double-double was needed. And Coleman wasn't bad on Saturday, but he certainly wasn't leading either.

** All of the superlatives aside, the Gophers really should have lost this game. Penn State out rebounded the Gophers 38-25. And they went to the free throw line 36 times. Thankfully they shot just 47 percent from the charity stripe.

** The officiating crew of Sid Rodeheffer, Dan Chrisman and Dwayne Gladden should be ashamed. I realize that this crew's desire to call every single contact as a personal foul likely led to the Gophers winning, but fans of both teams had right to be upset with this crew all day. Big Ten basketball is known for relatively physical play. You couldn't so much as cough on your opponent Saturday without getting a whistle.

** Kevin Payton recorded some solid minutes during the second half comeback. He frustrated as usual in the first half with his inability to make crisp decisions on offense. But it's worth noting he totaled eight minutes Saturday. Lawrence Westbrook and Abu-Shamala had 12 and 1o minutes respectively.

** While A-S played sparingly down the stretch, he seemed to me to be the biggest cheerleader on the sidelines. He just wants to win and contribute where he can. That's laudable.

** Lawrence McKenzie was obviously frustrated with the officiating and he only recorded 21 minutes as a result. But, McKenzie came through down the stretch with a big-time three, even with his finger wrapped due to injury. And he was 5-8 from the floor for 12 points despite being hurt.

** Finally, on the Bryce Jordan Center. My reaction is blah. The atmosphere was very good. The Penn State crowd was into the game and that thoroughly impressed me. But the arena itself was a mini Target Center that lacked any semblence of originality. Beaver Stadium, Joe Paterno's home which sits adjacent to the BJC, is another story entirely.

UP Next: The tough stretch of Minnesota's schedule continues. This week Indiana and Michigan State come to The Barn--which better be rocking. After facing two ranked teams, the Gophers will travel to Ohio State to end a four game murders row. I completely concur with Gopher Nation, who wrote yesterday that his mantra during this next stretch is "steal one game." I'm thinking right now the Gophers could do better than that. Michigan State looked abysmal last night in a loss at Iowa.

The complete box score from Saturday's game is here.


Friend Of Tubby said...

Nice write-up on the game. Penn State is not so glorious in the wintertime but fall is another story.

Next time U go, check out the Horseshoe Curve. It was an engineering marvel in the early 20th Century that allowed trains to turn around easily.

My grandfather helped build it.

Hawkeye State said...

Spencer Tollackson is a man! He's 23! Come after him!

Sorry, I can't help myself.

PJS said...

He's also a theater major.