No. 23 Gophers match program's best start since 1976-77

MINNEAPOLIS -- Having coached at storied Kentucky, Tubby Smith knows a thing or two about being ranked in The Associated Press' Top 25.

There isn't a player on his Minnesota team that had that feeling before Tuesday night, and his young Gophers got their first lesson in how to handle success.

Reserves Blake Hoffarber and Lawrence Westbrook both scored 15 points to lift No. 23 Minnesota to an 80-71 victory over Southeastern Louisiana in the Gophers' first game as a ranked team in six years.

"It's just like anything else. You have to experience certain things and you have to learn from this," said Smith, who watched his team slog through the early minutes of the game before getting a grip. "I think we learned something tonight about being the hunted."

The Gophers (11-0), who matched the program's best start since they opened with 11 straight wins in 1976-77, finished with a 46-14 advantage in bench scoring.

Kevyn Green scored 22 points for Southeastern Louisiana (6-5). Patrick Sullivan added 15 points and nine rebounds for the Lions, who used superior athleticism and quickness to make a game of it early.

The Lions led 14-11 midway through the first half after a three-point play by Robert Tibbs.

"You have the target now," Smith told his team. "The Top 25, everybody's going to try to beat you and they're going to come in with their best ballgame. That's what you want, though. That's why you play the game and that's why you try to raise your level of play."

Minnesota went on a 15-3 run bridging the first and second halves and outlasted the Lions the rest of the way.

Damian Johnson had 13 points and three steals for the Gophers, who last were ranked in a game on Dec. 22, 2002.

The Gophers lost that game to Oregon, but Smith has this young team brimming with confidence with one more tuneup against High Point before Big Ten play begins on Dec. 31 against Michigan State.

After beating up inferior competition scheduled to build cohesion early in the season, the Gophers finally got a win to brag about against then-No. 9 Louisville on Saturday. They controlled the game throughout in a six-point victory in Arizona, an impressive outing that catapulted Minnesota into the Top 25.

"Everybody's kind of excited about where we are and what we've been able to accomplish so far," Smith said. "They're human and they read the paper and listen to everybody patting them on the back. But it shows the type of character this team has that they were able to recover and handle it."

Carrying a 10-0 record in a game against yet another low-profile opponent two days before Christmas, the Gophers came out flat. The crowd was missing many of the rowdy students, who are home for the holiday break, and the shortage of energy seemed to translate to the Gophers on the court.

What Southeastern Louisiana lacked in height, the Lions more than made up for in athleticism and hustle. Sullivan, a 6-foot-9 center, had two blocks of 6-10 Ralph Sampson III and 6-11 Colton Iverson in the first 2 minutes to set the tone.

Green, the nephew of former Los Angeles Lakers standout A.C. Green, hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions for a 29-28 lead with 4:28 to play.

"This is my first time, and I think it's everybody else's first time, being ranked in college, too," Westbrook said. "Everybody sees us with the ranking. Teams that aren't ranked, especially, have a target on us and want to beat us so we're going to get everybody's best. That's what happened today."

Travis Busch's 3-pointer from the top of the key just beat the halftime buzzer for a 40-36 Minnesota lead, and the Gophers scored the first six points of the second half.

"It's amazing how a ballgame can turn around within two minutes and it's very difficult if they continue to play, run, and put pressure on both sides of the ball," Lions coach Jim Yarbrough said. "It's not a game where they just took over but they just did enough to keep that margin."