The Gophers men’s basketball team said it with every swish of the net, every authoritative block at the rim, every voice on the sideline in timeouts, even as its lead had long been pushed out of its opponent’s reach:
Bring on Syracuse.
Certainly, the Gophers (5-0) will have their work cut out for them on Monday, when they face No. 9 Syracuse in the Maui Invitational, but they made a statement Thursday night, blowing past Wofford in impressive fashion, 79-57 in front of an announced crowd of 10,342 at Williams Arena.
Coming off a win in which they had their worst defensive performance of the young season, the Gophers were short on bodies and preparation time, with the best matchup of the nonconference season on the horizon. None of it seemed to matter as they jumped out at a blistering pace and never stopped.
“It’s harder to play these games than it is at Richmond or Syracuse in Maui,” coach Richard Pitino said. “Because we don’t have to get them excited for those games. You come out here, earlier start, it was kind of a late-arriving crowd, coming from work or whatever. You’ve got to get it from within.”
With power forward Joey King on the bench with a fractured jaw and Mo Walker serving the fifth game of a six-game suspension for violating university policy, the remaining big men had no trouble picking up the slack. Forward Oto Osenieks came out full of steam, pacing the Gophers in the first half and finishing with 14 points and five rebounds. Elliott Eliason provided the critical low-post presence the Gophers needed, blocking a career-high seven shots, scoring in the paint and recording his second career double-double (11 points, 11 rebounds) while playing 31 minutes.
“Oto and Elliott were tremendous,” Pitino said. “That was a tough game for me to coach because I kept looking at the bench. And I’m like, ‘Well, what position is he going to play? What’s he going to do?’ Normally you have an idea of your rotation. So then your backup four man now becomes your backup five man. So we had to figure out a couple things. It was a bit of a challenge.”
The Gophers dominated offensively, shooting 70.8 percent from the field in the first half and 50.8 percent overall. They sank eight three-pointers and held Wofford to just 4-for-21 from behind the arc.
They also wasted no time in jumping all over the Terriers, holding Wofford without a basket for the first 4:55 and building a 24-2 lead. They took a 50-24 advantage into halftime after a buzzer-beating jumper by Andre Hollins. Osenieks scored seven points within the first five minutes and finished the half with 12 points after spending time as the only true forward on the court with Eliason in foul trouble. That he did so well was a testament to his basketball IQ, Pitino said.
“I was playing the five, which I don’t think I’ve ever played in college basketball,” Osenieks said.
But it was a game in which several Gophers were playing out of position. Austin Hollins (18 points, eight rebounds) played the four spot for much of the game with the short bench and looked at ease in a role he’s thrived in.
“I think I’m starting to get the hang of it, and if we need to go small or want to go small to force matchup problems, then I’m comfortable with doing it,” he said.