LAHAINA, HAWAII – After four days in the Maui sun, the Gophers were starting to resemble beach bums.
An encouraging tight game against Syracuse had been brushed aside after Arkansas routed them the following day. And by midmorning Wednesday, the Hawaiian charm had faded like a surf board left out at high noon, and the Maui Invitational was beginning to look like a bad decision, with the Aloha State’s own Division II Chaminade strong-arming the Gophers.
And then the Gophers awoke from their slumber.
They shoved aside 30 minutes of defensive struggles, poor decision-making and general lifelessness, picking up the tempo and their effort to pull away with an 83-68 victory on a 28-7 finishing run. That sends them into next week’s matchup against Florida State at Williams Arena with a shred of moxie instead of some hefty embarrassment.
“I think the biggest thing is it gave us a little bit of confidence,” said Malik Smith, who had 16 points. “After losing two games, your confidence starts to leave you a little bit. After today’s game, we got a little bit of that back.”
After trailing by five at the break, the Gophers (6-2) didn’t look much better at the start of the second half as Chaminade’s Lee Bailey (18 points, three rebounds) and Frankie Eteuati (13 points, nine rebounds) helped stretch the lead to nine. The Silverswords slashed to the hoop without trouble, cutting through Minnesota’s defense for easy scores or pulling up outside for open threes.
Midway through the second half, the Gophers finally stopped the charge, using a much more effective full-court press and drawing energy from point guard DeAndre Mathieu, who had eight points, four rebounds and four assists in the second half.
The Gophers leave the island with a 1-2 record in the tournament, taking seventh place. Starting with the Seminoles, they have only five more games before the Big Ten season.
Their frontcourt depth and lack of size have proven to be weak spots, and not just against teams that are aggressive in the paint by design. The Gophers’ execution on both ends has been inconsistent, and the leadership elements are still evolving.
In the last three halves at the Maui Invitational, the Gophers made only 36 percent of their shots while allowing their opponent to connect on 48.2 percent. They had only seven turnovers Wednesday but coughed up the ball 35 times in the first two games.
“It shows us how we have to play,” Mathieu (team-high 17 points with five rebounds and five assists) said of the Gophers’ final drive. “Every play has to be like that second half when we went on a big run.”
Coach Richard Pitino has worked his team into great shape and has it playing smarter than it did a year ago. But if the defense isn’t working on any given day, the team can look vulnerable.
Asked what his team could learn from the early struggles, the first-year coach said, “Probably that anybody can beat us on any given night.
“Obviously, you’d like to play a perfect game. We’re still learning, we’re still growing. But again, I’ve got to give our players so much for just finding a way to win this game in a very tough situation.”