The Gophers knew if they were to piece together a meaningful season under new coach Richard Pitino, it had to start now.
A three-game losing streak had made a promising start seem distant, and a threat to overtake their identity.
Saturday night, with legendary Louisville coach and Richard’s father, Rick Pitino, in the stands, the Gophers snatched a 66-60 victory over Indiana at Williams Arena and took their first step in finding relevancy once more.
“We’ve been so close with these last two,” center Elliott Eliason said. “It’s nice to just finally get a win, try to crawl up the Big Ten [standings]. It’s so close still. We still kind of control our destiny a lot, so we can still make a lot of noise here.”
DeAndre Mathieu hit a layup with 11.6 seconds remaining to give the Gophers a four-point lead, and they finished with a 13-4 run before an announced 14,625. Mathieu finished with 16 points, five assists and only one turnover.
“Coach always tells me to go in there and get one,” said Mathieu, whose twin brothers and cousin were in attendance. “He says I never get in there and get my hands dirty.”
When it mattered, the Gophers (16-8, 5-6 Big Ten) executed in all the ways they had failed to do both during their losing streak and earlier against the Hoosiers, getting big stops on defense and boxing out for rebounds. They once again found a winning option in center Mo Walker, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, and benefited from one of Mathieu’s best games in maroon and gold.
Indiana led by three with 5:54 to play, but after Austin Hollins’ three-pointer tied it at 56-56, Mathieu hit two free throws with 4:30 left to put the Gophers up for good. Elliott Eliason followed with a layup off a feed from Andre Hollins for a 60-56 lead with 3:18 to go.
Yogi Ferrell (14 points) made a long two-pointer, but Indiana (14-9, 5-6) was called for goaltending on Joey King’s shot to restore the Gophers’ four-point lead. Ferrell missed with 50 seconds left, but Noah Vonleh (12 points, 12 rebounds) stole the ball from Hollins for a layup with 41 seconds left.
Mathieu responded with his clutch drive, and he grabbed the defensive rebound on the ensuing possession. He hit two free throws to seal the victory.
Down the stretch, the Gophers switched to man-to-man defense and locked down the Hoosiers, who shot 4-for-8 from three-point range in the first half but only 1-for-6 in the second. Ferrell and Vonleh finished 5-for-9 and 5-for-16 from the field, respectively.
“They’re the engine of the team, and I think we did a good job of containing them,” said Andre Hollins, who added he feels about 90 percent healed from his severe ankle sprain.
At the start, the Gophers made the same mistakes that cost them in Wednesday’s triple-overtime loss at Purdue, giving up six offensive rebounds and sending Indiana to the line 12 times. But despite Indiana runs of 10-0 and 11-0 in the first half, the Gophers were within 36-30 at halftime, thanks to an 8-3 run to close sparked by a Walker dunk.
“We’ve got great guards that attack off the bounce and I just stay low, play the base line and they find me,” Walker said. “To finally get this win feels really good and we’re on top of the world right now.”