At the start, Williams Arena was a reflection pool on a cloudy day.
A trickle of basketball fans dressed in maroon-and-gold garb slogged into the echoing Barn, back for a game they were hoping they wouldn’t have to see.
Had Minnesota made the NCAA tournament, they would have been watching on TV. As it was, the U announced that 3,493 trudged through the fresh snow for the start of the NIT, the Gophers’ consolation prize after failing to make the Big Dance field on Sunday.
At tipoff, top-seeded Minnesota seemed to mimic that sentiment.
But after pushing aside a slow start and a concerning injury to point guard and leader DeAndre Mathieu, the Gophers perked up enough to get the job done and beat High Point 88-81 in the first round.
Mathieu aggravated a right hip bruise from the Wisconsin game in the Big Ten tournament when he was fouled hard by the Panthers’ Adam Weary and fell following a layup. He is expected to play Sunday, when the Gophers will face St. Mary’s in the second round at Williams Arena.
“These first games are the hardest, especially after coming off a loss, and coming off disappointment from the NCAA tournament,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “But I think we had the right mentality [Tuesday]. We came out, took care of business.”
The Gophers struggled to break away from an inferior opponent — just as they have all season — and will have to continue onward with their hottest player hobbled.
Mathieu, who has compiled 47 points in the past three games, was injured less than five minutes into the game. The junior tried to return, coming out to start the second half, but was clearly in pain. He took a seat soon after and didn’t return.
“We played without DeAndre,” Pitino said. “He’s been the heart and soul of our team.”
In his place, backup point guard Maverick Ahanmisi had a career night (21 points), leading the way as the Gophers got solid production throughout the lineup. Ahanmisi has compiled 34 points in the past two Gophers home games. The senior had 30 points all season coming into March.
“That was big-time,” Mathieu said. “Mav stepped up, made some big plays for the team. With me down, he handled the team well. That’s what we do, though.”
There were reasons to doubt those good vibes at first.
The NIT usually rewards those who really want to be there, and early on it looked as though the Gophers didn’t.
Instead, it was High Point’s John Brown who came out full of firepower, finishing with 19 points despite playing only 21 minutes and ultimately fouling out.
“We’re obviously kind of sad about not making the NCAA, but we told these guys, people that have been through the NIT, it’s something to cherish,” Ahanmisi said. “It’s something that’s going to help you for next year. … Past years when we went to the NIT, the next year we went to the NCAA. So it’s something to build upon.”
The Gophers (21-13) never went on a tear or completely left High Point (16-15) in the dust. But after an ugly start, the result was mostly satisfactory. The home team shot 48.1 percent from the field, and turned the ball over six times, none of those in the first half.
By halftime, the attendees had shaken the snow off their boots and managed to produce more sound than seemed possible from such a small bunch.
“We thank everybody for coming out,” Gophers guard Andre Hollins said. “Even though it’s the NIT.”