MINNEAPOLIS -- With Big Ten play starting next week, Minnesota (No. 16 ESPN/USA Today, No. 17 AP) received a test worthy of the physical, tightly contested league.
Colton Iverson scored 15 points, 11 in the second half, and had five rebounds and the Gophers held on to beat South Dakota State 85-73 on Thursday night.
Devoe Joseph added 15 points as Minnesota overcame a shaky start to notch its fifth straight win. Rodney Williams had 13 points and six rebounds for the Gophers (11-1), who open Big Ten play next week at Wisconsin.
"I definitely think we needed a game like that to kind of get us ready for the Big Ten," Minnesota senior point guard Al Nolen said. "You'd rather have a grind-it-out game against a good team, which South Dakota State is, than an easy rollover game. That definitely wakes a team up and gets us ready for the Big Ten."
Of course having Nolen return after missing five games with a stress reaction in his right foot helped the Gophers' cause in a close game.
"You can just see when he is out there, our intensity steps up," Joseph said. "He made a couple plays there where he's going out of bounds, saving the ball. He's a great defensive player. And on the offensive end, just controlling the team and running the team really well. It definitely changes our team a lot."
Sargent hit a 3-pointer to give South Dakota State a 60-59 lead and later tied the game at 63-all with another 3-pointer.
But Minnesota countered with a 12-3 run led by Nolen and Iverson.
"We showed a lot of resiliency, kind of a bend but don't break," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "Even when they took the lead, we didn't panic. We were able to turn up the heat in the second half, latter part of the stages and go on a nice run."
South Dakota State has featured one of the nation's most efficient offenses this season. The Jackrabbits entered the game second in the country with 9.3 turnovers per game leading to a plus-7.9 turnover margin and had shot 41.6 percent from 3-point range.
However, it was a pesky defense that helped South Dakota State challenge the Gophers.
The Jackrabbits forced Minnesota into 11 turnovers in the first half but scored just two points off them. With 11 turnovers and a shooting percentage of 33 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes, South Dakota State couldn't take advantage of its defensive effort.
"Ball control and turnovers," Jackrabbits coach Scott Nagy said. "We had 11 in the first half and we average 11 for a game. Very uncharacteristic of us and I felt we should have had a lead at half but you can't, having that many turnovers."
The Gophers steadied themselves in the second half with help from Nolen. He struggled in the first half, but his calming influence was needed down the stretch.
After a scoreless first half with two turnovers, Nolen finished with eight points and didn't turn the ball over in the second half. Minnesota had just one turnover after halftime.
"I don't feel 100 percent yet, but I feel good enough to go out there and contribute and try to make things happen," said Nolen, who wanted to play in a game before the Big Ten season begins. "I'm going to play from here on out and whatever happens, happens."
As the Gophers get healthier with Nolen's return, freshman forward Mo Walker left the game in the second half. Walker fell to the ground and clutched his right knee before being helped off the court.
Smith said doctors told him it is a significant injury. Walker is scheduled for an MRI on Monday to determine the severity, but will be allowed to travel home during the holiday weekend.
South Dakota State led 17-8 early, but a 19-4 run keyed by Joseph helped Minnesota recover.
"This will probably prepare us as well as any game as we get ready for Wisconsin and Michigan State, Ohio State and Indiana and everyone else in this league, because it will get a tougher," Smith said. "We've got to do a better job of staying out of foul trouble. There's a reason we play teams of this caliber; to really push us and test us and make us play better."