Hot shooting gave the Gophers men’s basketball team trouble early on Friday night, but it was the Gophers’ own late fire from deep that pushed them to a season-opening victory.
Coach Richard Pitino switched to a small lineup after an ugly first half, and the Gophers rained eight three-pointers in the final 20 minutes to overwhelm Missouri-Kansas City 76-58 at Williams Arena in the first of five games they will play in 10 days.
“Early in the season, it’s never pretty,” Pitino said. “We found a way to win, unorthodoxy, and we will take it.”
Joey King had six three-pointers, four in the second half, and finished with a career-high 22 points, and the Gophers shot 45.5 percent from three-point range to make up for a 42-37 deficit on the boards.
The Gophers led 32-30 at halftime after struggling to penetrate UMKC’s matchup zone defense. The home team’s shakiness of youth and inexperience was evident from tipoff.
But after the break, Pitino gave centers Bakary Konate — who returned after missing over a month because of a foot injury — and Gaston Diedhiou a break, opting instead for more offensive flexibility with a three-guard lineup and forward King in the middle.
The change gave the Gophers all they needed to power up and run away. The mismatches forced UMKC out of its zone and enabled the Gophers to get into the lane. With the balance came more open three-pointers, and it was bombs away.
King started the action, sinking one just over a minute in, and soon Carlos Morris, Jordan Murphy, Charles Buggs and Nate Mason joined in. What the Gophers lacked in size and defense, they made up for in speed, attacking with pick-and-rolls and spacing the floor with a bevy of shooters.
“It definitely sped the game up,” Mason said. “We were able to get open shots, get more scoring … it obviously worked.”
The first half? It was a different story.
The Gophers expected a driving team and packed the paint accordingly, but the Kangaroos took off from the perimeter with more than a little help from 6-foot LaVell Boyd, who finished with 25 points, including seven three-pointers off the bench.
UMKC led by as many as nine, taking advantage of the porous Gophers perimeter defense. Eight of the Kangaroos’ 11 first-half field goals came from behind the arc, on 15 attempts (53.3 percent).
“They were small and scrappy and switching everything,” Pitino said.
The Gophers, meanwhile, were ice cold, scoring only twice in their first 14 possessions and starting 0-for-10 from three-point range.
“We had jitters,” Morris said. “We had to get the jitters out. Their defense got us out of our offense a little bit and we couldn’t let that happen. We go against that defense every day — they play the same style as we do.”
Down 20-11, the Gophers responded with a 14-2 run that featured eight consecutive points from Nate Mason and back-to-back threes by King, who would carry the rhythm into the second half, using his versatility in the smaller lineup to keep defenders off-balance.
“He’s a really confident kid right now, and that’s because he’s — no question in my mind — one of the hardest workers in our program,” Pitino said. “He truly believes every shot he takes is going in and he’s disappointed when it doesn’t.”