You wouldn't expect the Gophers men's basketball team to take any opponent lightly coming off a frustrating loss two days earlier against Missouri.
The Gophers needed another wakeup call early Saturday, but a sluggish start and poor shooting didn't lead to another letdown in a 67-53 victory over South Carolina Upstate in front of an announced 7,347 at Williams Arena.
The Gophers (3-1) shot 39.7% from the field and had only one player score in double figures, but they ended the game on a 10-1 run.
Defense helped the Gophers bounce back from Thursday's demoralizing 70-68 loss against Missouri. South Carolina Upstate (2-3) shot just 34%, including 2-for-12 from three-point range in the second half.
"I kept telling them you have to win with our defense," Gophers coach Ben Johnson said. "I thought they really stepped up to the challenge. I really couldn't care less what we did offensively."
Dawson Garcia was held six points under his average with 14 points, but the Gophers frontcourt changed and contested shots all afternoon. Garcia and Pharrel Payne combined for six of the team's eight blocks.
"We knew we would bounce back," Payne said. "Ben always talks about defense wins the games. So, if the shots aren't falling, we have the defense to bank on."
Staring at a near-five-minute stretch with no field goals by the Gophers, Garcia ended the game with six consecutive points. After converting an old-fashioned three-point play, the 6-11 junior followed it up by nailing his first three-pointer for a 64-53 lead with 23 seconds left.
The hot shooting that allowed the Gophers to lead by 20 points in the second half against Missouri didn't show up Saturday. They shot 5-for-23 from three, including 1-for-10 in the first half.
The cold stretch from long distance has been surprising since the team made a big improvement from last season through three games. The Gophers were fourth in the Big Ten from beyond the arc (39.1%) coming in.
Mike Mitchell Jr. was 3-for-7 from three Saturday, but the rest of the Gophers were 2-for-16.
"Shots aren't going to fall every game, so we're going to have to rely on our defense," Mitchell said. "We just had to keep working hard and give everything we've got."
Last week, the Gophers hit 14 three-pointers in a 102-76 victory vs. Texas San Antonio, but they had struggled since to get quality shots and take care of the ball.
After ending Thursday's game scoreless from the field in the final six minutes, the Gophers missed their first seven threes Saturday to trail 13-8 in the first half. They had eight turnovers in the first half but finished with only 11 in the game.
Relying on jump shots and transition buckets wasn't the answer this time. The Gophers created easier offense with defensive stops, establishing an inside presence (32 points in the paint) and rebounding (44-35 edge).
The Spartans cut their deficit to 57-52 with just under five minutes to play, but the Gophers wouldn't allow them to score again — flipping the script from the end of Thursday's loss.
"We talked about the crowd and the name on the jersey are not going to be the same," Johnson said about not playing a Power Five foe Saturday. "All the reasons to be sluggish and dead. I just really wanted to challenge us defensively to have that energy and have that fight."