Richard Pitino chuckled when asked if he used having the Final Four in the Gophers’ backyard at U.S. Bank Stadium as motivation to his players this season.
Not that Minnesota’s sixth-year basketball coach didn’t believe in his program’s potential. But the way the team was playing even in victories this season it was hard to look too far ahead.
Coming off the first loss of the season, the Gophers responded with an 83-76 victory against Oklahoma State in the first Division I basketball game at the Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis.
Jordan Murphy led Minnesota (6-1) with 24 points and 16 rebounds, tying Jim Brewer’s school record with his 51st career double-double. Isaiah Washington had his first double-figure scoring game of the season, with 15 points and four assists.
An announced crowd of 12,357 got a bit on edge when the Gophers saw an 18-point lead cut to 70-64 with 6:40 left to play. Michael Weathers’ dunk and free throw cut it to 77-73. Weathers had 14 of his 16 points in the second half for Oklahoma State (4-3), which owned a 90-77 upset of No. 19 LSU.
Gabe Kalscheur’s three-pointer that created a 77-68 lead with 4:34 remaining appeared to be the biggest shot of the game. Washington’s two free throws in the waning minutes after the Cowboys got within three were even more clutch.
The Gophers, who shot 23-for-30 from the foul line in the game, were 6-for-8 on free throws in the last 1:14 to close out a much-needed win going into early Big Ten play Sunday at Ohio State. The next home game is Wednesday against Nebraska.
Gophers fans hadn’t seen their team play in Minneapolis for four straight games, including the Gophers’ championship at the Vancouver Showcase after victories over Washington, Texas A&M and Santa Clara.
Pitino’s team seemed to be picking up momentum at the right time with a 5-0 start. The Boston College loss took away some steam, but returning home was the best thing to happen.
Gophers players said there was no reason to panic after Monday’s ugly 12-point loss at Boston College. Still, they knew bouncing back meant finding a way to make some shots against a zone defense after shooting 29 percent in the last game. They shot 52 percent from the field Friday night, including 58.8 percent in the second half.
“We’re not always going to be a beautiful team,” Pitino said. “We’re going to have to scratch and claw, play tough defense and rebound. Make those winning plays we’re doing. It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece, but I think that was our best game yet.”
It wasn’t easy getting used to the stadium backdrop in the first half. Minnesota was outscored 13-0 and trailed by eight points early to the Cowboys.
Murphy carried the Gophers through a rough shooting spell. His three-point play tied the game 18-18 midway into the first half, but the bench helped to give him support.
With starting center Daniel Oturu in foul trouble, Matz Stockman gave the U an inside presence defensively. One of Stockman’s two first-half blocks ignited a 9-0 run that gave the Gophers their first lead since the opening minutes of the game.
“Matz was huge for us,” Murphy said. “Coming off the bench he gave a spark for us.” He set the tone for the second part of the first half and going into the second half. I think going into halftime we had a lot of momentum because of Matz.”
Washington scored six of his 11 first-half points in the final two minutes. Stockman’s jumper at the buzzer sent Minnesota into halftime with a 45-38 advantage.