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Message to Gophers guard Payton Willis: ‘Your voice is powerful’

Senior point guard set a career high with 32 points, tied a program record with eight 3-pointers, distributed seven assists and played all 40 minutes in last Saturday’s 68-65 victory over Rutgers

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Minnesota
Minnesota Gophers guard Payton Willis reacts after winning the game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
Harrison Barden / USA Today Sports
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It’s hard to ask anything more of Payton Willis right now.

The Minnesota Golden Gophers senior point guard set a career high with 32 points, tied a program record with eight 3-pointers, distributed seven assists and played all 40 minutes in last Saturday’s 68-65 victory over Rutgers. He won co-Big Ten player of the week honors for his performance.

But it was the way Willis spoke up during timeouts that has head coach Ben Johnson calling for more going into Minnesota’s 7 p.m. Thursday game versus No. 16 Ohio State (12-4, 5-2 Big Ten) at Williams Arena. That’s how he was leading the shorthanded Gophers (11-5, 2-5)over the Scarlet Knights last weekend.

“I want him to do it more,” Johnson said Saturday. “Payton is a thinker. When he’s in the moment, that’s how I know. When he’s rolling, he’s doing little stuff like that. And he was in the moment. I think he knew he had to be more (outward Saturday) because of the situation.”

The Gophers were without three key players against Rutgers — leading scorer Jamison Battle (non-COVID-19 illness), third-leading scorer EJ Stephens (non-COVID-19 illness) and starting center Eric Curry (high ankle sprain). All three players are closer to coming back to play the Buckeyes.

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Johnson said Stephens is the closest to returning, with Battle a game-time decision and Curry progressing, though playing Thursday might be too soon. Any of those key players coming back would help take the load off Willis.

“He had to coach and teach more (Saturday) to these guys because of the situation,” Johnson said. “He was animated in timeouts. He was in the groove with what they were doing defensively. He was helping the new guys when I was drawing stuff up.

“He was a big help, but again, do that more,” Johnson continued. “Don’t just do it when we are up against it. Sometimes your voice is powerful.”

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Minnesota
Minnesota Gophers guard Payton Willis shoots the ball during the first half Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
Harrison Barden / USA Today Sports

Willis, who was voted a team captain in preseason, said while he’s more of a lead-by-example player, he tries to be an extension of Johnson on the court.

“He knows I’m not a ‘oorah, oorah’ guy that is going to be talking all the time, so he doesn’t force that on me,” Willis said. “… I’m not a guy who is going to speak up every huddle, just saying stuff for no reason. I feel like I’m going to speak when it’s effective.”

The Gophers will need Willis and Co. to speak loudly and carry a big stick against the Buckeyes and all-Big-Ten-caliber player EJ Liddell, who is fourth in the league with a 19.4-point average and a conference-best 2.8 blocks per game.

“He is a matchup nightmare,” Johnson said. “He is one of the best offensive players (with) his versatility, his ability to play inside and out. He’s smart. He makes you sick when you watch the film about how you’re going to guard him.”

Vax policy

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The University of Minnesota’s temporary vaccination policy will be in effect for Thursday’s game at The Barn. Fans over age 5 must show proof of vaccination or a negative test result in the previous 72 hours before entering the arena.

“We want to do everything we can to keep everybody safe,” Johnson said. “That’s obviously the No. 1 priority. Keep the players safe, keep the fans safe.

“If we’re able to do that, I would encourage with everything I have to come out and continue to come out. I’m appreciative of the fans that have. I think it’s been awesome. I thought last game was really good. The fans that were there, it made an impact.”

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