A long homestand couldn’t have come at a better time for Gophers sophomore basketball coach Ben Johnson, who opened the season with four straight games at Williams Arena.
With injuries and a much younger roster than last season, the Gophers were forced to play multiple freshmen early on. It was much easier to adapt to college basketball at home.
Shaking off Game 1 jitters, the Gophers freshmen combined for 40 points Friday night to extend the non-conference program’s home winning streak to 16 in a row with a 72-54 win over St. Francis Brooklyn ahead of 8,232.
“As a former player, I’ve been there firsthand and know what they’re going through,” Johnson said. “That’s why I wasn’t put off by the last game at all. As a young team, they need reps for everything. It was a perfect game for us.”
The Gophers (2-0) struggled to pull away in the first half for the second straight game when St. Francis Brooklyn was trailing only by a field goal late in the opening period.
After a quiet start in Monday’s 61-60 win over Western Michigan, freshmen Jaden Henley, Joshua Ola-Joseph and Pharrel Payne combined for more first-half points (20) than the 13 points scored together in their first match. Henley led the Gophers with 16 points on 5-for-8 shooting and 4-for-4 from the foul line.
“We tried to be aggressive and play free,” Henley said. “After the first game we had under our belts, we really felt more comfortable with the pace. We really understood how to cooperate with each other.”
Dawson Garcia was the star of Monday’s opener with 23 points, but the Gophers needed another scoring option after sitting out with early fouls and then resting Friday. Garcia finished with 11 points and eight rebounds in 17 minutes.
After Garcia left the game, Henley, the lone freshman starter, scored his second field goal this season with a three-pointer to spark an 11-0 first-half run. Payne and Ola-Joseph also showed their athleticism and physical presence to delay St. Francis’ comeback.
The best highlight of the first half was when Payne connected with Ola-Joseph on a backdoor pass that ended in an emphatic dunk.
Payne, who had 12 points and eight rebounds on Friday, hammered two dunks himself. But Ola-Joseph, who had nine of his 12 points in the first half, blew his teammates off the bench when he slammed a Terriers defender late in the second half.
Junior Jamison Battle, last season’s leading scorer, was out for the second straight game with a foot injury. Juniors Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen were out for the season with knee injuries. They all watched from the touchline as a youth movement took over.
Around the 14-minute mark in the second half with the shot clock about to expire, all seemed well with the ball in Henley’s hands.
The 6-7 California native drove hard into the lane to call the foul on a floater at the buzzer. He followed with two free throws. A minute later, Henley drilled his second shot from beyond the arc to extend the Gophers’ lead to 58-34.
Dennis Evans III, a 7-foot five-star high schooler, who signed to the Gophers’ highly touted 2023 class of 2023 on Wednesday, which includes Illinois’ Cameron Christie, is likely a Henley fan watching his pal’s game from afar this season.
Henley and Evans won’t team up until next season, but everyone saw Friday just how much impact freshmen can have on the program right now.
“They keep getting better every time they play,” Garcia said. “Everyone in the dressing room knows what he’s capable of and we’re very excited for them. You saw a glimpse of that tonight.”
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