The Gophers showed the best and worst of themselves at home last season, whether it was an upset over top-10 Maryland or a 25-point loss to Northwestern.
The Williams Arena crowd didn’t know what to expect each night from Richard Pitino’s team last year, but Minnesota’s 86-74 season-opening victory Friday against Louisiana-Lafayette provided hope that things could be different this season.
Some of the same fans who saw the Gophers suffer a program single-season high 10 losses at the Barn last year were on their feet with applause after Nate Mason’s buzzer-beating three-pointer made it a 22-point halftime lead.
“We kind of have an edge coming off last year,” said Dupree McBrayer. “We just needed to improve, and everybody is confident.”
Mason, who had 15 points and seven assists, said the buzzer-beater “sent chills through my body.” The junior guard shook off early rust after missing last week’s exhibition game vs. Bemidji State because of a concussion. He scored eight of his 10 first-half points in the last two minutes.
McBrayer, who joined Mason in the starting backcourt, also had 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting. Mason, McBrayer, Amir Coffey and Akeem Springs combined to hit all 10 of the team’s threes.
Coffey, who finished with 13 points, was the first Gophers freshman to start in the opener since Andre Hollins in 2011-12. The former Hopkins standout was one of five newcomers who made their official debut, including freshmen Eric Curry and Michael Hurt and junior Reggie Lynch.
“You could see from all the new guys they bring a different dimension to the team,” Mason said.
Six times during nonconference play last season, the Gophers trailed in the first half, and they lost five of those games. The pre-Big Ten schedule is even tougher this year with Sun Belt preseason favorite Texas-Arlington coming Monday and Power 5 programs St. John’s and Arkansas at the end of the month.
But the Gophers never trailed Friday, when their largest lead was 27 points. After trailing for nearly 18 minutes in the first half against a Division II opponent last week, Minnesota learned its lesson with a stronger start vs. Lafayette.
“I think these guys were just eager to get back on the court,” Pitino said. “That was a fun half of basketball.”
Pitino must have locked his players in the arena to work on their shooting this week. They shot 61.5 percent from the field in the first half Friday, including 7-for-13 on three-pointers. That helped offset some of Minnesota’s sloppiness offensively; the Gophers made 10 of their 19 turnovers before intermission.
The Gophers shot 4-for-19 on three-pointers in their exhibition game. Springs went scoreless that night, but the senior transfer from Wisconsin-Milwaukee sparked his new team with nine of his 11 points on 3-for-4 three-point shooting in the first half.
Springs, who was named team captain with Mason and Jordan Murphy this week, nailed a double-pump bank shot for this third consecutive three-pointer during a 25-9 start for the Gophers. Lynch, an Illinois State transfer, made Lafayette respect the interior to open the game with five of his 10 points in the first four minutes. He finished with eight rebounds and two blocks in 19 minutes.
It says a lot about Minnesota’s depth that it made up for a quiet night from last year’s All-Big Ten freshman Murphy, who had just six points, four rebounds and four fouls in 18 minutes. But his thunderous dunk on a Lafayette defender after a drive down the lane to open the second half ignited the crowd, making it 56-33.
“I’ve said it all along: We have a more complete team,” Pitino said. “They want people talking good about them. Hopefully tonight helped that.”