MINNEAPOLIS -- With snow swirling outside, Minnesota had trouble getting going. The Gophers found just the spark they needed with a rugged, smothering defense.
Ralph Sampson III had 19 points, eight rebounds and four assists to help Minnesota (No. 20 ESPN/USA Today, No. 22 AP) overcome a ragged start and overtake Eastern Kentucky for a 71-58 victory on Saturday.
"That really gets me fired up," coach Tubby Smith said, smiling. "That makes me happy when I see that type of play."
Justin Stommes scored 19 points for EKU, which took a 22-13 lead but was outscored 30-3 from there over a stretch of nearly 17 minutes bridging the intermission.
"Their coaching staff made great adjustments within the game and at halftime," Eastern Kentucky coach Jeff Neubauer said. "It was hard for our guys to find the right look."
EKU was 0 for 10 in the second half until Stommes slammed down a dunk from the baseline to cut the lead to 43-27.
"They were stuck on 25 there for a long time," Hoffarber said. "Coach was just emphasizing shutting them down. Offense wasn't really clicking, so we've got to win the game playing defense."
Some sloppy passes by the Gophers and a tricky 1-3-1 zone defense by the Colonels was a problem early for the home team.
"The best way to get 'em out of the 1-3-1 is to not let 'em score," Smith said.
The Colonels have a couple of Minnesotans in their rotation, Stommes from Cold Spring and freshman Taylor Filipek from Willmar. The 6-foot-7 Stommes did his best to keep the Colonels competitive, leaping for tipped balls and unafraid to pull up and shoot or drive to the basket. Stommes, one of three senior starters for EKU, sank a 3-pointer with 6 seconds left in the first half that stopped a stretch of 6 minutes and 45 seconds without a score for the Colonels.
That shot also gave EKU the lead back, ending a 12-0 surge by Minnesota, but Maverick Ahanmisi made sure the Gophers maintained their momentum into the locker room by swishing a buzzer-beater just inside the half-court line.
"When you play your tail off for the first half and then all of a sudden you lose the lead on a shot like that, I'm sure it did frustrate some of our guys," Neubauer said. "Great teams don't let something like that bother them."
The Colonels, who have already begun Ohio Valley Conference play, were facing a major-conference team for the first time this season. They also play at Georgia on New Year's Eve. This was also EKU's first game against a nationally ranked foe since playing No. 10 Duke on Nov. 25, 2007.
"I made some mistakes on defense and missed some easy shots," Stommes said. "I can always do better, but I did all right."
The actual number of people in the seats was at most 5,000, with the blowing snow and slippery roads naturally keeping thousands of ticket-holders away. The student section filled in all right, though, with the noise from their derisive "airball" chant at Filipek for a first-half miss reaching a near-normal level for a nonconference game.
The crowd also gave a hearty cheer for new football coach Jerry Kill, who was introduced during a first-half timeout and spent some time sitting in the seats with some of his players, including next season's quarterback MarQueis Gray.
Gophers senior point guard Al Nolen sat out with a foot injury for the fourth straight game, and it's uncertain if Nolen will be available for the Big Ten opener at Wisconsin on Dec. 28. Smith said Nolen might try wearing an orthotic in his shoe and test his foot by running on Monday, but he needs more time to heal.
His absence has hurt Minnesota's perimeter defense, with a conference-worst 3-point shooting percentage allowed, though the upside is that Smith has been able to give his young players more court time. Ahanmisi is one of four freshmen in the rotation.
After committing 11 turnovers in the first half, the Gophers opened up their offense. Sampson, who finished 6 for 6 from the floor, pinned part of the slow start on the snowstorm, one of those mornings when it's hard to get motivated to get up and go outside.
"There was a blizzard outside, so we were stuck in here for a little bit. So may as well try to have fun with it," he said.
Mbakwe had four dunks, and Sampson had a couple of slams himself. Mbakwe's last dunk came with 1:22 left, and a few seconds later the scoreboard and some of the arena lights lost power. They went back on shortly after.
The Gophers won despite continuing their free-throw shooting struggles -- going 12 for 22 -- and allowing 10 3-pointers.
"If we can just eliminate the turnovers and make our free throws, then I'll think I'm in heaven," Smith said, laughing.
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