Gophers men's basketball passes another road test, beats Mississippi State to improve to 7-0

·3 min read

Dec. 5—The Gophers men's basketball team is moving further away from being a surprise and closer to setting a standard.

For the second time in six days, Minnesota won a close game on the road against a high-major opponent.

The Gophers improved to 7-0 with a 81-76 win over Mississippi State (6-2) on Sunday at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss. The victory over a Southeastern Conference foe came less than a week after the U edged Pittsburgh 54-53 in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Tuesday.

Payton Willis hit a clutch 3-pointer to break a 76-76 tie with 17 seconds left. On the other end, the U point guard grabbed a defensive rebound, was fouled and hit two free throws with 10 seconds left to ice the game. Willis finished with 24 points, and wing Jamison Battle had 20.

By taking care of the ball, mixing in different defensive schemes, overcoming the absence of a key reserve and relying on their two best players, the Gophers enter Big Ten play this week with a high level of confidence.

The already thin Gophers were without sixth man Sean Sutherlin, a guard sidelined with a knee injury and is listed as game-to-game, according to the U. Sutherlin is fourth on the team in scoring with a 9.2-point average, but the one-two punch of Willis and Battle carried Minnesota on Sunday.

The Gophers mixed in zone defenses in the second half to fluster the Bulldogs, then 6-foot-3 guard Iverson Molinar became a force in the second half. He had a career-high 26 points, including 18 in the second half, for Mississippi State.

Minnesota had only one turnover in the first half and four in the game against a Bulldog team picked to finish eighth in the SEC.

"When you value the ball and you take good shots and we shot (49 percent) from the floor, over 40 from 3, all that stuff goes into winning," head coach Ben Johnson said postgame on KTLK-AM. "You are not beating this team unless we have our A game and our guys knew that. This is a really well-coached team. I think they are going to have a chance to be in the NCAA tournament. For us, we had to come with laser focus for all 40 minutes and not have any flaws and we were able to do that."

Minnesota made 12 3-pointers, the first time the U had double-digit threes since Jan. 30, 2021 against Purdue. To start the second half, Battle hit three triples and Willis one to re-extend the lead to 60-46.

The Gophers started hot with a 14-0 run across the first four minutes, but the Bulldogs had two runs (7-0 and 9-0) to trim the lead to 23-20 with six minutes left.

Willis paced the U with 12 points and five assists in the first half, while Luke Loewe contributed 11 points after his game-winner against Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

The Gophers now host Michigan State (7-2) at Williams Arena at 8 p.m. Wednesday.

"We've felt like we've played two league games already as far as our mentality and as far as the type of game," Johnson said on the radio. "Physical, hard-nosed, inside-out, good players, now it's just to refocus. We are going to enjoy this (win) for sure. We just got to refocus and think about how we got to get better this week."

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