MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Freshman Rodney Williams had 17 points, six rebounds and four steals in his first career start, helping 24th-ranked Minnesota pull away from Utah Valley in the second half of a 76-51 victory on Thursday.
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 Utah Valley turnovers, and five Gophers turnovers only gave the Wolverines (1-2) two points.
Jordan Swarbick led Utah Valley with 11 points and Tyray Petty had eight points and nine rebounds, giving Minnesota plenty to work on before playing 11th-ranked Butler next week.
The Wolverines, who followed a win over North Dakota State in their opener with a loss to Cal State Bakersfield on Tuesday, fell behind 41-26 early in the second half when the Gophers appeared poised to run away with the game. Utah Valley didn't wilt, though, with peppy point guard Eric Dearden rushing to the rim for layups and Petty and Swarbick muscling for position underneath.
Al Nolen's steal and wraparound pass to Williams for a fast-break dunk over the pursuing defender got the crowd going a little. 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 as the Gophers began to exert themselves.
Williams had one more dunk in him, of course, at the end of another fastbreak fueled by this active defense coach Tubby Smith pushes his teams to play. That pushed Minnesota's lead to 73-51 with 2 1/2 minutes left.
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 had an enthusiastic row of fans wearing their green colors sitting behind the bench, and they didn't lack energy on the court, either. Though an unfriendly rim on Minnesota's end of the court in the first half spit several on-target shots out of the cylinder, Utah Valley 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.
Jourdain Scoubes swished 3-pointers on consecutive possessions for the Wolverines, keeping them within two points with 7 minutes to go before the break, but Johnson sandwiched a spinning layup and another shortie around a Utah Valley turnover to stretch Minnesota's lead later in the half.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)