MINNEAPOLIS -- When Minnesota's shots aren't falling, that aggressive, athletic defense is usually there as a fallback.
This season, freshman Rodney Williams is fast becoming quite the safety net, too.
Williams had 17 points, six rebounds and four steals in his first career start, helping Minnesota (No. 18 ESPN/USA Today, No. 24 AP) pull away from Utah Valley in the second half of a 76-51 victory on Thursday.
"Rodney really gave us a heck of a boost," said point guard Al Nolen, who had 11 points, seven assists and no turnovers. "He just adds another dimension to our team."
Missing senior leader and top scorer Lawrence Westbrook to a stomach virus, the Gophers (3-0) finished 5 for 19 from 3-point range and were outrebounded 34-29 by a team in its first year as a full-fledged Division I program. Damian Johnson had 15 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals, though, to lead another strong defensive effort. Minnesota had 30 points off 26 turnovers by the Wolverines (1-2).
"I was hoping we could be a little more disciplined, firm with the basketball and a little less vulnerable to pressure," coach Dick Hunsaker said. "When you pass it to the other colored shirt the statistic hits the wrong category. It's an inverted assist. We had too many inverted assists tonight. We've got to do a lot better in that regard."
Much of the credit goes to the Gophers, whose trapping, pressing, overplaying style is supposed to lead to a lot of turnovers.
"Anytime a team forces you to 26 turnovers, I think every kid left the court making sure they still had their shorts on," Hunsaker said. "They picked our pockets every which way and took the ball in every manner you can imagine."
Adding Williams to the mix has made Minnesota more dangerous.
"We're a lot more athletic than we were last year, and we've got a lot more guys that complement each other," Johnson said. "If me and Al trap someone, we always have somebody long like Rodney who can get a steal."
Jordan Swarbrick led Utah Valley with 11 points and Tyray Petty had eight points and nine rebounds, however, giving Minnesota plenty to work on before playing Butler (No. 12 ESPN/USA Today, No. 11 AP) next week in the 76 Classic tournament in California. The Gophers will play three games in the big-name field.
"The offense was there. We just weren't throwing it to the right people," coach Tubby Smith said. "We've got to establish the inside game. It's kind of like a good football game. You've got to soften up the middle and then hit 'em with the outside."
The Wolverines, who followed a win over North Dakota State in their opener with a loss to Cal State Bakersfield on Tuesday, didn't wilt with peppy point guard Eric Dearden rushing to the rim for layups and Petty and Swarbrick muscling for position underneath.
Nolen's steal and wraparound pass to Williams for a fast-break dunk over the pursuing defender got the crowd going a little early in the second half. Five minutes later, Williams was fouled trying use the baseline for a slam and fell hard on his side, taking a few seconds to get up. He made both free throws, though, and on his next two drives he chose layups instead.
Williams had one more dunk in him, of course, at the end of another fastbreak fueled by this active defense Smith pushes his teams to play. That made Minnesota's lead 73-51 with 2 1/2 minutes left.
"They have some great athletes on that team, and they play really good defense," Swarbrick said. "But we think we could have done a little better job handling that in the second half."
The Wolverines had an enthusiastic row of family members wearing their green colors sitting behind the bench, and they didn't lack energy on the court. They stayed close with hustling defense and a willingness to make quick drives to the basket against the block-hungry Gophers, who swatted 23 shots in their first two games.
Utah Valley's bold jump from junior college to Division I was finalized this summer after six years playing under the NCAA's provisional status, which made the Wolverines ineligible for postseason play. After previous iterations as a technical and a community college, the school officially gained university status last year. The Wolverines are in the Great West Conference.
"It's definitely exciting. We have something to play for now," Swarbrick said. "We have a great group of guys and if we can continue to play together and do what we need to, I think we'll be successful in this conference. It should be fun."