ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Expectations internally for the Gophers men’s basketball team didn’t match the low projections outside the program entering this season.

A consensus among college hoops observers was Ben Johnson’s first year as Minnesota’s coach wouldn’t see many victories, but players used those doubts as motivation.

With a chance to prove themselves in the Asheville Championship, the Gophers improved to 3-0 in route to the tournament title behind Payton Willis’ career-high 29 points in an 87-80 double overtime victory Sunday night against Princeton.

In the second overtime, Willis’ three-pointer helped the Gophers grab the momentum with a 77-72 lead. The Tigers clawed back to make it a three-point game, but Willis responded with four straight points to widen the margin.

Willis earned Asheville Championship MVP honors Sunday for the Gophers, who won their first preseason tournament title since the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in 2010.

Another tight finish came down to extra periods for the Gophers when Princeton’s Jaelin Llewellyn slashed through Minnesota’s defense for a game-tying layup at 59-59 with 22 seconds left in regulation.

Llewellyn, who finished with 19 points, came up in the clutch again for the Tigers in the first overtime with another acrobatic finish to make it 72-72.

The Gophers squandered a chance to seal the game in regulation when they shot just 8-for-17 from the foul line.

Johnson’s undefeated early start might seem like a surprise, but the Gophers had a feeling they could get off to a strong start this year after rallying together to pull out the season opener.

Beating Missouri Kansas City 71-56 to get Johnson’s first head-coaching win last week sparked the players’ confidence, especially since they finished the game on a 17-4 run.

Western Kentucky cutting a 16-point deficit to a basket with three seconds left put the Gophers in another tight end-of-game situation, but they escaped 73-69 to open the Asheville Championship.

The Gophers trailed late in the first half Sunday, but Jamison Battle scored 14 of his 24 points to spark an 11-0 run that helped them take control 38-30 at halftime against Princeton.

The Tigers (2-1) advanced to face Minnesota after defeating South Carolina 66-62 in Friday’s second game. They hit 11 three-pointers against the Gamecocks but shot 6-for-28 from beyond the arc Sunday night.

Johnson’s Gophers have a chance to keep their momentum going after Asheville by playing back-to-back home games against Fort Wayne on Friday and Jacksonville on Nov. 24 at Williams Arena. That will be followed by the U’s first two true road games this season at Pittsburgh and Mississippi State.

After being picked to finish last in the Big Ten in the preseason, the Gophers have jumped out to an impressive start behind the play of Battle and Willis, who combined to score 53 points Sunday.

Battle and Willis, who returned to the Gophers after transferring to Charleston last year, were among 10 scholarship newcomers, the most in program history.

The Gophers were bracing for a massive rebuild, but they landed six graduate transfers to make them the second most experienced team (2.75 years) in the Big Ten, per

That experience was critical down the stretch Sunday when Princeton answered a 10-point second-half deficit by pulling within 56-53 on Ethan Wright’s layup with just under five minutes to play. Wright’s basket then made it 58-57 after a turnover from Battle with 40 seconds to play.

It was the third straight game where the Gophers allowed a double-digit lead in the second half be cut to a basket late, including a 12-point advantage in the opener against UMKC.

Leave a Reply