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The Gophers men’s basketball team had an opportunity to cleanse its palate after a Big Ten-opening blowout loss to Illinois with a win over quality nonconference opponent Sunday.
The slight underdog Gophers washed out the previous loss like Listerine, leading throughout the second half to beat St. Louis 90-82 at Williams Arena. This will help the U separate from its 27-point loss Tuesday as they head into 19 consecutive games in arguably the toughest league in college basketball.
“That is a great step in the right direction because that is a tough, physical, talented, well-coached team,” Gophers head coach Richard Pitino said.
St. Louis (6-1) was a two-point favorite and considered a candidate to make the Associated Press Top 25 after a win over N.C. State on Thursday. The Atlantic 10 Conference contender also has a win over LSU on its résumé.
Minnesota (7-1) used strong shooting and another big night from Marcus Carr to inject positivity before a game against No. 3 Iowa on Christmas Day.
Carr finished with a game-high 32 points, including 14 of 19 from the free-throw line, and added seven assists.
The Gophers came into Sunday’s game as the worst 3-point shooting team in the Big Ten (28.5 percent). They shot 40 percent from deep (10 of 25), while St. Louis made only two.
“It just opens up the court and gives us a bit more spacing whenever we are trying to play, drive lanes, feed the post, move the ball well,” Carr said. “We are able to do that at a higher level.”
This shooting disparity was necessary because a season-long theme of poor rebounding continued to hurt Minnesota. St. Louis had an 18-6 advantage on the offensive glass, and the Gophers didn’t get their first second-chance bucket until there were six minutes left in the game.
The Gophers had a quick 8-0 run early in the second half, which helped stake a 54-44 lead that created breathing room they wouldn’t relinquish. A 10-2 run to make it 75-60 aided it even more.
After a lack of physical play against the Illini was a point of emphasis, Pitino liked what his team did during that stretch. “The middle of the second half, we were playing terrific basketball. We were hitting bodies, and we were blocking out.”
The Gophers held a slim 42-40 lead after a back-and-forth first half. Carr’s 14 first-half points all came in the first seven minutes when Minnesota took its biggest lead of the half at 17-10.
Carr’s hot start frustrated the Billikens. When Carr created a sliver of separation for a fadeaway, a St. Louis defender tossed up his hands in frustration over the difficult defensive assignment.
There were mini runs throughout the opening 20 minutes. Minnesota had a 7-0 run to take a 40-34 lead, but St. Louis had a 6-0 spurt in the last minute-plus before Liam Robbins’ pair of free throws gave Minnesota the slight edge at the break.
It wouldn’t get closer than that in the second half.
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