Gophers rally for 76-65 win over Nebraska without Dawson Garcia

Pharrel Payne had 12 points and four rebounds in the Gophers 76-65 win over Nebraska Wednesday night at Williams Arena. (Brad Rempel/University of Minnesota Athletics)

Ben Johnson came into Wednesday night’s game looking for a breakthrough win that could give the Gophers’ men’s basketball team momentum into the rest of December, and hopefully into Big Ten play in January.

They had to do it without their best player, but the Gophers rallied from being down 39-24 at the half for a 76-65 win over the Cornhuskers at Williams Arena. Dawson Garcia, after a career-high 36 points at Ohio State, went down with a left ankle injury three minutes into the game. He tried to walk it off, but couldn’t and went straight down to the locker room. He came back up to the bench with about three minutes left in the first half and tried to play through it, but was visibly hobbling.

Garcia played the first two minutes of the second half before spending the rest of the game watching from the bench. He did not score in seven minutes. Johnson said after the game he doesn't believe the injury is serious, but Garcia will get X-rays.

"Unfortunate for him without a doubt. Kid has worked so hard, especially when he’s in a flow to have that happen so early, you feel for him. We all feel for him. The first half you’re just kind of trying to find small victories to go into halftime. I thought the response was unbelievable. Just a phenomenal second half from our guys," Johnson said.

So what changed? The Gophers out-scored Nebraska 52-26 in the second half and had a balanced attack with five players scoring in double figures. Joshua Ola-Joseph had a team-high 15 points, Braeden Carrington had 13 points and five rebounds and Elijah Hawkins filled the stat sheet with 12 points, 11 assists and six rebounds. Mike Mitchell Jr. and Pharrel Payne added 12 points each.

"Definitely seeing him go down, that’s an energy drainer. But we’ve got to realize it takes five people to win basketball games, not just him. We had a lot of people come off the bench and just played great minutes for us," Carrington said. "It just shows that we’re better than what people think we are."

The Gophers trailed by as many as 17, but climbed out of the deficit with a 13-0 run in the second half, capped by Mitchell’s steal and lay-up, to tie the game 42-42 with about 13 minutes to play. The Gophers took their first lead at 47-44 on a Mitchell 3-pointer with about 11 minutes to play.

An Ola-Joseph alley-oop dunk from Hawkins gave the Gophers a 54-48 lead, one they held the rest of the game. The Gophers got 27 points from their bench in the win. Johnson called the win his biggest in two-and-a-half years as Minnesota's coach. 

"This game was so big for so many reasons, it was the biggest game in my 2.5 years here. I say that because the building blocks and the momentum that hopefully this can carry through the rest of this month is so important to this team. We have a lot of good things, the one thing we don’t have is to be able to lean back on winning," Johnson said. "Now every game moving forward, we can lean back on this. When you win with your leading scorer going down without scoring and only playing seven minutes in a league game against a team that’s pretty good. There’s proof in the pudding now."

In addition to Carrington's 13 points, he held Nebraska's top scorer, Keisei Tominaga, without a field goal and to just four points at the free-throw line.

Minnesota improves to 6-3 on the season and 1-1 in Big Ten play. Their remaining non-conference schedule includes Florida Gulf Coast, IUPUI, Ball State and Maine. The Gophers resume Big Ten play at Michigan on Jan. 4.