Dec. 23—Ben Johnson has experienced a few moments, particularly during in-game timeouts, when the first-year head coach has let go of his cool and unleashed loud, colorful messages to spur on the Gophers men’s basketball team this season.
Despite trailing 17-point underdog Wisconsin-Green Bay 29-28 at the half, Wednesday was not one of those times as Johnson told his players, “I’m not going to lose my mind.”
Johnson didn’t need to. Before the coaching staff had even gotten into the locker room at intermission, co-captain Eric Curry said their veteran group of players self-diagnosed what needed to be better and added they’ve routinely done that this season. “We knew we had to create our own juice” during an odd midweek matinee in front of a lean crowd and a underwhelming opponent.
Nearly 300 Division I programs separated Minnesota and Green Bay in the NET rankings before the U’s penultimate nonconference game. Minnesota came in at 36th in that pecking order for the NCAA Tournament, and Green Bay, on a three-game losing streak, was near the bottom at 333rd.
Johnson said he knew the second half would be better even before the Gophers inbounded the ball. Minnesota jumped out to 10-2 run in the restart and kept up its improved play in a 72-56 victory over Green Bay (2-9). It was only the fourth time in 11 games Minnesota (10-1) trailed at the half, but the Gophers have come back to win three of them, including games at Michigan and Pittsburgh.
“The reality is when you’ve had time off and haven’t been in a flow and you’ve gotten more off days than you normally do, and it upsets your rhythm, you still have to find a way to produce,” Johnson said of the seven days between games. “You got to find a way to show up. That was the challenge, and Green Bay was more ready in the first 20 minutes.”
The Phoenix shot 48 percent from the field and scored 20 points in the paint to take the lead at the break.
Gophers point guard Payton Willis, who eclipsed 1,000 career points in the first half, had 14 points Wednesday, along with a career-high 10 assists. Curry contributed his first career double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Jamison Battle led Minnesota with 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting and kept the U in the game in the first half with 15 points, while the the rest of the team combined for only 13.
After turning the ball over 28 times and relying on 3-point shooting in last week’s win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Minnesota had only five turnovers to Green Bay’s 10. The U had only one turnover in the second half.
Gophers players knew they were too careless with the ball last week and didn’t try to force things against Green Bay.
Johnson said he has tried to pick his spots on when to coax results with tough love and when to let a veteran team figure it out, calling his players a “thinking group. They internalize a lot of stuff.” Battle said when Johnson has reamed out players, “he does it rightfully so, when we deserve that. He came in (Wednesday) and told us what needed to be done, but we already knew.”