VANCOUVER – Richard Pitino didn’t have the luxury of going to his bench last season, with injuries, a suspension and general lack of depth leaving him with few options sitting behind him. But the Gophers men’s basketball coach found out Sunday night that his bench might be a strength this year.
Texas A&M twice battled back from double-digit deficits to take the lead late in the game, but Pitino and the Gophers, using a nine-player rotation, pulled out the 69-64 victory. Minnesota scored 20 points off the bench and made hustle plays down the stretch to escape a sloppy start to their Vancouver Showcase.
“I thought the guys off the bench made a lot of really good plays,” Pitino said. “When you turn the ball over 20 times and miss 14 free throws, you’ve got to find a way to make some winning plays. We did that.”
Four players logged double- figure minutes off the bench for the Gophers (3-0), who face Santa Clara (0-3) on Tuesday night and Washington (3-1) on Wednesday in their remaining games at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Sophomore point guard Isaiah Washington led the reserves with 19 minutes, followed by freshman Jarvis Omersa (13), senior Matz Stockman (13) and transfer Brock Stull (12).
Maybe the biggest surprise contribution against A&M in critical moments was Stull, the new senior guard. Stull, one of the top shooters in the Horizon League the past two seasons at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, didn’t see the court in last week’s victory over Utah. But Sunday, he scored six points with a pair of three-pointers and had two steals.
“It’s just a kind of thing where I know I can do it,” Stull said. “Still kind of getting into the flow of things not having the summer here ... I was trying to be patient and keep working. I knew I would get to where I want to be.”
With Amir Coffey struggling to take care of the ball (six turnovers), Pitino moved the 6-foot-8 junior from point guard to the wing spot and put Washington in his place.
“We moved [Amir] off the last couple minutes,” Pitino said. “I think that helped him and that calmed him down a little bit. He’s got a pesky defender on him. We probably needed to do a better job of back screening to get him off. But I thought it helped him getting off the ball.”
That switch helped to limit the mistakes a bit in the second half. Washington still struggled with his shot, scoring six points on 2-for-8 shooting, but he had a team-best three assists and four rebounds.
In the Gophers’ first three games, Pitino started freshmen Gabe Kalscheur and Daniel Oturu in front of more experienced players such as Stull and the 7-footer Stockman. Kalscheur and Oturu made plays in crunch time, including a key steal, contested shot and rebound in the waning minutes. But those two and Omersa also showed their inexperience playing for the first time away from home against an athletic and physical SEC opponent. It helped to have veterans to rely on off the bench.
Stockman scored six points and grabbed three rebounds in 13 minutes. His emphatic dunk on two Aggies defenders was the highlight of the first half, when the Gophers took a 14-point lead.
In years past, the starters struggling spelled trouble. Early signs tell a different story this year, and after Sunday’s comeback Stull said this team could have a special season if they keep getting bench support like they did against Texas A&M.
“Everyone can be in that starting lineup,” Stull said. “If you do mess up, we have people to come and fill in. But keeping that confidence is key for us. After this road trip, our goal is to be in the Top 25 rolling out of here undefeated. We think the sky’s the limit for us, but we have to keep improving.”