On a night like Saturday, fresh off another long break for the holidays and facing one last no-name opponent before conference play begins, the Gophers men’s basketball team realized its goals had to change.
So when the Gophers entered the locker room at halftime up 32-21 against Texas A&M Corpus Christi, a team ranked as one of the worst in the nation, the Gophers set an intention: hold the Islanders under 40.
After the 65-44 victory to close out nonconference play, coach Richard Pitino joked that the Gophers “lost” because they didn’t achieve that target. But the implementation of that goal is evidence in and of itself. The Gophers (11-2) have improved defensively to a point that higher standards from Pitino are now warranted.
On Saturday, they held Texas A&M Corpus Christi to 35.4 percent shooting overall and 6.7 percent (1-for-15) from three-point range, and they forced 18 turnovers to cruise to the finish despite their own shooting troubles, both from the floor and the foul line.
“I was proud of our guys to hold them to 35 percent,” Pitino said. “When it got down to the half court, I saw a sense of urgency from these guys. At halftime, I told them, ‘We’re good, but let’s be great.’ And I thought they were trying to make that next step — just with little things, like challenging a three-point shot or trying to get a hand on the ball in the pick-and-roll. They were communicating great, they were really hustling.”
That kind of effort is the result of what Pitino has seen in practices of late, the coach said, with players ramping up in the slow section of the schedule rather than falling apart. When they returned from winter break for a practice on Wednesday, Pitino was sure the team would be rusty. Instead, he said, they played their hearts out. When the Gophers convened for a double practice the following day, Pitino was again surprised to see them, roll out such focused, aggressive performances.
The building intensity showed against the Islanders (3-10), with the Gophers flexing for a 16-2 run in the first half and starting off the second on an 18-3 run, holding their opponent without a basket for the first 7:44.
The Gophers, who won the rebounding battle 43-33, overcame a 12-for-22 performance from the free-throw line and 37.3 percent shooting from the floor with solid performances from Andre Hollins (game-high 18 points, three rebounds) and Austin Hollins (13 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two more monster dunks), who were attacking on both ends.
“It was a different game because we missed 10 free throws and we didn’t make all our wide-open shots, so it would have been a much bigger margin,” Andre Hollins said. “I think we had a really good defensive effort tonight.”
With the Big Ten schedule set to kick off on Thursday against Michigan, the Gophers have taken pride in their improving defense, both in the full-court press and the zone, and hope the new goals they have had to create down the nameless stretch of December opponents will pay off by making them a team that doesn’t let up.
“He tells us to look at the bigger picture,” Austin Hollins said of Pitino. “It’s more than just winning the game, it’s getting better as a team — winning isn’t enough. The score is 0-0 each possession, and we go out there and try to get a stop.”