MINNEAPOLIS — Williams Arena is as much airplane hangar as basketball arena. The home of the Minnesota men’s basketball team is capable of producing noise belying its cavernous interior, and its raised court and double-decker stands harken back to the vintage days of the sport.
Opened in 1928, Williams is college basketball’s sixth-oldest arena and one of its most unique. When stacked up to modern venues and their amenities, it doesn’t seem all that sexy, but it’s steeped in history and proudly displays all of its 91 years. It is what it’s always been.
On Thursday night, Michigan went to Minneapolis and beat the host Golden Gophers, 69-60, moving to 13-3 in Big Ten play and 24-3 overall. The Wolverines, too, were who they’ve always been.
Specifically, that means an offense that occasionally struggles to score, but a defense that usually turns one half of the court into a 2,350-square-foot torture chamber. It’s not always aesthetically appealing basketball, but it’s gotten Michigan to No. 7 in the nation. The Wolverines are perfectly content with that.
“I think that they understand that (defense) is the one consistent thing we can have every day,” said Michigan coach John Beilein.
That doesn’t mean the Wolverines won’t lunge at the chance for an offensive explosion, however — and at early on, against the Big Ten’s second-least efficient defense, it looked like the fuse was lit. Michigan nailed three 3-pointers in the game’s first eight minutes, shooting to a 17-6 lead during which every starter got on the scoreboard.
It got ugly fast.
Minnesota big men Jordan Murphy and Daniel Oturu were two of the main reasons. Murphy, a 6-foot-8 bowling ball, gobbled up five offensive rebounds and 10 total in the first half. Oturu had 10 of his own, as well as 10 points for a double-double by halftime. Meanwhile, the Golden Gophers (7-9, 17-10) held the Wolverines to just 11 points from 11:57 until intermission. Eight of Minnesota’s 18 first-half points came from second-chance opportunities, as it went to the locker room down just 10 despite shooting a putrid 22 percent from the floor.
“Eventually our shots were gonna fall, so we gotta keep shooting,” said junior center Jon Teske. “We have all the trust in the world with all our teammates to knock down shots, and coaches give us trust to go shoot the ball.”
Michigan opened the floodgates after the break. Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis scored seven points in fewer than two minutes, and Teske swished a three to quickly push the lead to 18, necessitating a timeout by Golden Gopher coach Richard Pitino.
The Wolverines were unable to pull away, however. After a 3-pointer by sophomore forward Isaiah Livers made the score 50-29, they hit just three shots over seven minutes. An Oturu dunk off of a steal put Minnesota within 11 points with 4:47 to play, bringing the venerable arena to its feet.
But Teske answered Oturu with two straight 3-pointers, firing an imaginary bow-and-arrow as he backpedaled down the court. The arrows proved to be fatal.
“We feel like everything’s going right and we’re playing really good defense,” said sophomore guard Jordan Poole. “We don’t really worry about the shots because we know how good we are of a shooting team.”
The second half was much closer to the breakout Michigan craved, as it hit eight 3-pointers on 57 percent shooting with Poole (21 points) and Teske (17) led the way.
“We made shots. It’s that simple,” Beilein said. “This is something that I would love to figure it out — why Jordan Poole can have the same shots and they don’t go in, Teske, they don’t go in … We just gotta continue to try to get good shots, and obviously, the better the shot, the more chance it’s gonna go in. I think that was pretty good today, our shot selection.”
Still, there was plenty of ugliness. Poole missed three free throws in the final minute, failing to completely slam the door shut. Instead, after the Golden Gophers turned the ball over, the Wolverines dribbled out the clock.
It wasn’t head-turning by any stretch, but Michigan did what it’s always done, and ended up getting the job done for its biggest conference road win.