BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Minnesota coach Tubby Smith has pleaded with his team to push the ball inside.
The Golden Gophers (No. 20 ESPN/USA Today; No. 21 AP) finally made Smith's strategy work on Sunday.
"We were really focusing on looking inside today, and I think the guards really worked on getting it inside to Ralph," Johnson said. "Ralph made some big plays, I made a couple of shots and I think that really got us going at the end."
For Minnesota (17-3, 5-3 Big Ten) the tactical change couldn't have come at a better time.
The victory ended a two-game losing streak and gave the Gophers their first victory at Assembly Hall since February 2004. It also sent them home confident they don't have to rely exclusively on 3-point shooting all season.
For Indiana (5-13, 0-6), it was a familiar story.
The Hoosiers led early when they were making 3-pointers, then stalled to help Minnesota rally. And while Indiana got within one point five times in the second half, it didn't have enough left to finish the comeback.
Indiana has now lost nine straight, its longest skid since losing 11 in a row in 1943-44 -- also the last time they opened Big Ten play with six straight losses. Worse yet, the Hoosiers have dropped five straight home games, matching the mark set in 1984-85 as the longest losing streak in Assembly Hall history.
Coach Tom Crean has never endured anything quite like it.
"I'm not going to get discouraged by it, though," he said. "We're going to get after it."
The Hoosiers did make improvements.
They hit their first five 3s in the first half, one more than their season average for a full game and hung around long enough to have a chance to win. They also may have found another scorer in Malik Story.
Devan Dumes led the Hoosiers with 19 points despite missing a potentially tying 3 with 2.3 seconds to go, and Story came off the bench to add 14.
But there were problems.
"We had a couple possessions where we made a big shot and then they'd come down and make too much of an easy bucket," Dumes said. "We've just got to recover better."
Most of those plays were forced by Smith's tactical change, intended to exploit Indiana's post weaknesses with the combination of Johnson and Sampson, the son of the former All-American center from Virginia.
Minnesota made only 4 of 16 shots from beyond the 3-point line but was 21-for-39 on 2-pointers and continually drew fouls. Point guard Al Nolen also took advantage of two late drives with nifty wraparound passes for layups.
Johnson had 18 points and six rebounds, while Sampson had 13 points and eight rebounds. The Gophers' top scorer, Lawrence Westbrook, finished with 12 and Jamal Abu-Shamala had 10 points including a four-point play that helped turn the momentum in the first half.
Smith couldn't have scripted it any better.
"We did make a conscious effort to get the ball to [Sampson], and I thought our guys showed a lot of confidence in him," Smith said. "When they got the ball to him, they thought he would finish and he did."
Still, it was a tougher victory than most anticipated.
Minnesota rallied from a 19-11 first-half deficit to a 31-30 halftime lead, even after Verdell Jones seemed to give Indiana a boost with his buzzer-beating half-court heave.
Then, early in the second half, Minnesota looked like it would pull away. It scored seven of the first nine points to extend the lead to 38-32, but the Hoosiers fought back.
Indiana stayed within one possession most of the second half until Story missed a 3 with the shot clock running out. Sampson answered with an awkward putback with 1:54 left to make it 64-59.
Story then hit a 12-footer and after the Gophers drew a shot clock violation, Nick Williams made two free throws to close the gap to 64-63.
But Nolen's two free throws forced Dumes into a long 3 from beyond the top of the key and it bounced high off the back of the rim. Paul Carter grabbed the rebound and made 1-of-2 free throws to seal it.
"Coach really emphasized passing to the post, that was our main emphasis today and we were able to execute that plan today," Sampson said. "We felt we needed to have a way to get back on the right track and Indiana was the next game, so we needed to have a strong win here."