The Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s basketball team started the 2021-22 campaign with its heavily turned over roster and new coaching staff with a bevy of non-conference matchups, as most seasons do.
The Gophers nearly had to hit the panic button on Friday against the Horizon League’s Purdue Fort Wayne Mastodons, but ended up pulling through 78-49 to get the victory at Williams Arena.
“It was the first time I felt like guys were being tentative, like we’re almost trying to be too perfect,” Gophers coach Ben Johnson said. “We responded, especially defensively.”
Minnesota had heavily relied on its starters so far this season, but an interesting move came from the bench on Friday that propelled the Gophers from an unexpected early deficit to a near 30-point win: senior Sean Sutherlin.
Sutherlin came in as the Gophers were down early and missing shot after shot. Minnesota was down 15-5, and Sutherlin became the start of the answer that the Gophers brought the rest of the game. He sparked some energy and helped lead a comeback where he led the team with 11 points in the opening half.
“That’s big time when a guy who can come off the bench can put up numbers like that,” senior Luke Loewe said. “There’s finishing at the rim, getting to the free-throw line, a huge spark to our team, and that just brings energy.”
He finished the game with 19 points and seven rebounds, all while hitting every shot he took. He made 5-8 free throws in the victory as well, when much of the team struggled mightily from the line. Sutherlin’s 19 points were his most in a game all season, five more than his 14 against Princeton on Nov. 14.
The comeback may have been started by Sutherlin’s bench shooting, but a starter from Robbinsdale took the task of widening the gap in the second half and made sure the rest of Williams Arena was feeling the surge too.
Jamison Battle took what was an abysmal 2 for 9 rate from 3-point range at the half to explode for two of the team’s three 3-pointers to run out of the gates in the second half. Battle made sure to strut back on defense as the crowd, the loudest it had been all game, made sure to recognize the Gophers’ newfound success in the game. Minnesota made six 3-pointers in the second half, with the two from Battle and four from senior EJ Stephens.
“You’re going to win with your defense and have fun with your offense,” Johnson said. “I thought their energy picked up, they consumed themselves with the defensive part, and conversely, all of the sudden, you’re getting wide-open looks.”
Battle finished the game with 13 points, four rebounds and hit 3 of 4 from the free-throw line.
In all, the Gophers had four players finish in double-digit points. Sutherlin led the way, along with Battle, Stephens and Loewe. Beyond its leading scorers, Minnesota got 30 points off the bench in the victory.
“I’m always motivated,” Sutherlin said. “I try to lock in, try not to focus on everything that’s going on and just try to focus on the game.”