With four seconds remaining in a three-point game, Malik Smith stepped to the free-throw line and clunked consecutive shots.
Later, Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino called the misses “shocking.”
Perhaps because the Gophers had been so good at the fundamentals all day, and a pair of missed free throws — especially from a player who had made four in a row only seconds before — were lost in the overwhelming improvement they showed on Sunday at Williams Arena.
Despite mistakes down the stretch that made for a tight 82-79 victory over Purdue after what felt like a runaway, the Gophers — looking like a different team than the one that bumbled and fumbled their way to a loss three days earlier — were able to stand by their strong early work.
“I think we’ve shown that we can be a really good team if we execute the right way,” Pitino said. “For about 35 minutes of the game, we played phenomenal.”
After falling short in their Big Ten opener against Michigan, the Gophers (12-3, 1-1) rediscovered an all-around sharpness. They got big performances from Andre Hollins (17 points, five assists) and Austin Hollins (18 points, nine rebounds); held the Boilermakers to 39.7 shooting from the field; nullified the impact of Purdue 7-foot center A.J. Hammons (seven points, one rebound) with strong play from Elliott Eliason (eight points, seven rebounds, six blocks); and shot 52.2 percent from the field and made 11 three-pointers.
But the biggest difference in a game that trudged along for 2 hours, 20 minutes with 39 fouls called, was the Gophers’ success from the foul line, and Purdue’s ugly performance there.
“We always shoot free throws after practice,” said Smith, who with an 85 percent success rate is the best free-throw shooter on the team. “That’s something Coach puts a huge emphasis on, and that’s something we take a lot of pride in.”
Minnesota hit 23 of 27 free throws, good for 85.2 percent, while the Boilermakers managed only 20 of 28.
After trailing by 19 points in the second half, the Boilermakers pulled within four with 2:15 to play by harassing the Gophers into a couple of critical turnovers with their full-court press and hitting a pair of three-pointers.
“You’re not going to have a team quit on you in the Big Ten — they’re going to keep coming back at you all the time,” Eliason said. “So you’ve got to learn to close out games and stick to your principles on defense and know what you’re doing and don’t make mistakes on offense. I don’t think we did a good job of that at the end, but luckily we came out with a win and didn’t learn the real hard way.”
But the Gophers, who had a 42-35 lead at halftime, hit six of eight free throws from there, and Purdue — which watched Hammons struggle all game after an 18-point, 16-rebound performance against No. 3 Ohio State — was unable to overcome an afternoon full of misses, despite Bryson Scott making the final two.
The victory provides a big boost for the Gophers before they go on the road this week, to Penn State and Michigan State.
“When you lose that one game, sometimes you can lose your confidence and start doubting yourself,” said Austin Hollins, who had four three-pointers. “But I think the guys were really focused today. … We came out with extreme confidence, and we took care of business.”