MINNEAPOLIS – Blake Hoffarber's 26 points and Minnesota's improved perimeter defense helped the Gophers outlast eighth-ranked Purdue 70-67 on Thursday night.
JaJuan Johnson had 29 points and 11 rebounds for the Boilermakers (15-2, 4-1 Big Ten), whose 10-game winning streak ended. They also lost for the first time in nine conference road games, dating to last January.
Hoffarber went 10 for 15 from the field and Al Nolen added 13 points, eight assists and three steals for the Gophers (13-4, 2-3), who have had a tumultuous week.
Leading scorer and rebounder Trevor Mbakwe, dropped from the starting lineup due to a misdemeanor charge of violating a harassment restraining order, played plenty after entering the game less than 4 minutes in — just seconds after students started a "We want Trevor!" chant.
Mbakwe had seven points, 10 rebounds and two blocks. He was arrested Monday night after sending a message on Facebook to a former girlfriend who filed the order against him. Head coach Tubby Smith and athletics director Joel Maturi decided not to suspend Mbakwe, who sat out last season while an unrelated court case dragged out, but Smith had stern words for the junior forward and told him to stop using social media.
Lewis Jackson had 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists for Purdue, countering Hoffarber and making sure the second half was seesaw and not one-sided.
Nolen's 3-pointer near the 3-minute mark was the game's final score, giving the Gophers a three-point edge. The second-worst team in the conference in defending the 3-pointer, Minnesota cranked up the intensity around the arc in the second half — holding Purdue to 2 for 12 from 3-point range after the Boilermakers made five of their first six.
Mbakwe's presence was huge inside for the Gophers, as he blocked a layup by Jackson at the half-minute mark. Nolen got the ball and missed the front end of his 1-and-1 free throw, but D.J. Byrd and Jackson missed pressured, off-balance 3-pointers on the other end after the Boilermakers called timeout to discuss their final set.
With fellow senior star E'Twaun Moore struggling to score — he went 1 for 14 from the floor against Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament last year and finished 2 for 14 in this one — the 6-foot-10 Johnson took over the offense and gave the Gophers fits trying to defend him.
Using his exceptional wingspan and soft touch, he hit shots from nearly everywhere — turnarounds, from the top of the key, underneath — in the early going and had 18 points by halftime.
Neither team led by more than eight points. Johnson's wide-open 3-pointer tied the game at 38, as he whirled around and pumped his fist during the jog back on defense.
The Gophers often looked disheveled in their half-court offense, but they made up for their lack of a rhythm and identity against one of the Big Ten's stingiest defenses with a good fast break and a hot streak by their sharp shooter Hoffarber.
He set the tone for the second half with a 3-pointer from the wing that stretched the lead to 46-40 after Ralph Sampson III dived for a loose ball and directed it toward his teammate.
The Boilermakers were back on the raised floor at Williams Arena where their Final Four — or more — aspirations were damaged last February along with standout Robbie Hummel's right knee. They did what they could, reaching the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament, but they clearly weren't the same team without the rangy forward. Their 69-42 loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament semifinals last March was evidence of that.
This season, Purdue had the same setback, but before the games even began when Hummel again tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and was lost for the season. Head coach Matt Painter has again kept the Boilermakers on track, rebounding from an early double-digit defeat to Richmond and starting their winning streak with an overtime victory over Virginia Tech on Dec. 1, which was their only game this season decided by 10 points or less.