After the deficit had already gone on for far too long Saturday, Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino gathered his team on the sideline during the third media timeout and spoke in measured tones.
Reserve Charles Buggs had just drained a three-pointer, but the Gophers were still trailing by six, more than 12 minutes into a matchup against North Carolina Wilmington that should have been lopsided the other way.
Still, the players calmly looked on as their coach explained:
“We’ve got runs in us.”
That they certainly did. After falling behind by as many as nine points in an ugly start, the Gophers almost instantly ignited a 19-0 run. They eventually charged past the scrappy Seahawks 108-82 before an announced 12,711 at Williams Arena, overcoming a poor defensive start and yet another sluggish outing on the glass in the Gophers’ last nonconference game of the season. They open Big Ten play Wednesday at Purdue.
“Our offense has really — it’s kind of been comforting,” Pitino said. “We know that we’re going to be able to get some easy buckets. Now we’ve just got to get some stops. Nobody was really panicking.”
That was evident by what followed.
During an afternoon highlighted by the Gophers’ best ball handling game (25 assists to eight turnovers), three players — Carlos Morris (who finished with a career-high 24 points), DeAndre Mathieu (13 points and a career-high 11 assists) and Mo Walker (17 points, six rebounds) — scored in double digits in the first half alone. Buggs (13 points) added three three-pointers in those first 20 minutes, along with a pair of dazzling no-look passes at the hoop in transition for assists.
And then the Gophers (11-2) shot 65.6 percent in the second half, taking the sting away from a performance on the boards in which they were outrebounded 21-11 in the first half and 39-27 overall.
“Every game is going to be like this in the Big Ten,” Mathieu said of the first-half deficit. “They’re all going to be battles ... you’ve just got to keep coming and keep pushing. It just shows we’ve got to keep fighting no matter what the score is.”
The Gophers were tied with their previous opponent, Furman, on Monday with 3 minutes, 7 seconds to go, but clamped down for the 86-76 victory.
A tired start Saturday had another inferior opponent threatening once again.
The Gophers fell behind out of the gate with UNC Wilmington (5-5) making 13 of its first 18 shots for a 31-23 lead. But with seven minutes to go in the half, the Gophers noticeably picked up their defensive intensity and ramped up the pressure, quickly flipping the deficit.
“We knew we had to do something a little different,” Mathieu said. “Amp it up a little bit, just force some turnovers. So we really turned it up midway through that first half.”
Following his three, Buggs continued to lead the Gophers’ charge by flipping a quick catch-and-shoot to Walker for a dunk. Then Morris, struggling with shot selection early, got into a groove, scoring 12 of his 14 first-half points in the final 6:07, mostly on hard drives to the basket.
“There were a lot of open lanes and the coaches kept telling me to just drive,” Morris said. “I was thinking about it too much, I was jabbing. So I just had to drive and get going.”