Although he’s often the smallest player on the basketball court, listed at 5-9 and 165 pounds, DeAndre Mathieu is a crowd favorite, and he proved once again Saturday in a 66-60 victory over Indiana at Williams Arena that as the junior point guard goes, so go the Gophers.

Mathieu led all players in points (16) and assists (five) while also grabbing two steals and committing only one turnover in 34 minutes. He also scored the decisive basket on a big drive to the hoop with 18 seconds left that gave the Gophers a 64-60 lead.

“It feels good to finally get one to go down at the end,” he said. “I feel like I’m one of those players that loves to take the last shot. I have the ultimate confidence in myself, and it just feels good to get one to go.”

Mathieu was asked about how comfortable he feels taking big shots late in games.

“I have ultimate confidence in myself, and my teammates do, too, so I just go after it,” he said.

Following the game, Gophers coach Richard Pitino talked about Mathieu’s play down the stretch.

“Mathieu missed shots against Northwestern and Purdue [that could have won games], but he comes back to make that big shot against Indiana,” Pitino said. “DeAndre made an unbelievable move to get to the rim, then he comes in traffic to get the rebound [on a missed Indiana three-pointer with six seconds left].

“He is 5-9, 165 pounds, but he believes he is 6-8, 230.”

Pitino has to know that Mathieu’s play can be the difference between winning and losing in the Big Ten.

In the Gophers’ six conference losses this season, Mathieu has averaged 10 points on 42.3 percent shooting. In the Gophers’ five conference victories, Mathieu has averaged 14.8 points on 57.4 percent shooting.

Mathieu is the team’s second- leading scorer at 11.8 points per game. He also leads the team with 4.3 assists per game and is second in steals with 1.7 per game, proving how important his all-around game is to the Gophers.

Long road to the U

Despite being the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel’s 2011 player of the year and a member of the Tennessee Sports Writers Association’s Class AAA All-State team, Mathieu was not heavily recruited. He walked on at Morehead (Ky.) State in 2011-2012 and played his sophomore season at Central Arizona College.

Mathieu was the second player to sign a national letter of intent for the Gophers after Pitino took over as head coach last year, but few could have known how quickly he would become the team’s most important player.

Mathieu was coming off a good season with Central Arizona, averaging 17.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game. He was named the Arizona Community College Conference Player of the Year.

He had taken official visits with the Gophers, Memphis and Mississippi and also had offers from UCLA, Pepperdine, Wofford and Washington State.

Mathieu told while he was being recruited that “I want the chance to play and make an impact right away. I’m looking for a family environment where everybody gets along, a place where everybody is having a good time playing basketball. The biggest thing is a chance to play in the right environment.”

When Mathieu signed, Pitino said he knew he had a player who could do several things to help the Gophers.

“DeAndre is the type of player that fits our style of play, both offensively and defensively,” he said. “He is an up-tempo point guard that does just about everything on the court.”

Pitino said the Gophers were fortunate to sign Mathieu because he was set to enroll at Memphis, but the Tigers recruited another point guard before Mathieu made his decision.

With the Gophers sitting at 16-8 overall, they are probably four victories away from getting a berth in the NCAA tournament. They have home games with Illinois (Feb. 19), Iowa (Feb. 25) and Penn State (March 8) left, and road games at Wisconsin (Thursday), Northwestern (Sunday), Ohio State (Feb. 22) and Michigan (March 1).

Mathieu will have to keep up his great play for the Gophers to get to 20 victories in a surprising and already successful regular season.

McHale has best squad

Former Timberwolves general manager and coach Kevin McHale comes to town Monday with the Houston Rockets. This is McHale’s third season in Houston and he has the best squad he’s ever coached. The Rockets are 34-17 and in fifth place in the Western Conference.

McHale got a chance this year to work with big man Dwight Howard after the Rockets signed the All-Star center in free agency. Howard is averaging 18.8 points, 12.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. The Rockets are also led by James Harden, who is eighth in the league in scoring at 23.7 points per game.

McHale has posted a 113-86 record for a .568 winning percentage in his third season leading the Rockets. Even though Houston has yet to make the playoffs under McHale’s leadership, that should end this year. Compare that to the Wolves, who are 81-118 for a .407 winning percentage over the same time span.

Jim Dutcher, the former Gophers coach of McHale and Wolves boss Flip Saunders, made this remark: “Maybe as it worked out, McHale is a better coach than he was a general manager with the Wolves and Saunders is a better general manager than coach.”


• Don’t be surprised if linebacker Erin Henderson, who was released by the Vikings after twice being charged for drunken driving in a six-week span, winds up playing for ex-Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, now the defensive coordinator for Tampa Bay.

• Former Gophers wide receiver Derrick Engel has hired Minneapolis-based agents James Selmer and Shawn Stuckey in preparation for the NFL draft. Engel, who led the Gophers in receiving yards before suffering a season-ending knee injury in November, is training with former Vikings strength and conditioning coach Mark Ellis.

• Minneapolis/St.Paul Business Journal reports that Viking tackle Matt Kalil is the local franchisee for Pieology Pizzeria for the state of Minnesota and plans to make this area his year-round home with his involvement in the operation of several locations.

• Gustavus graduate Jack Breckner, who previously played with the Iowa Barnstomers of the Arena Football League and other arena teams, has signed as a free agent tackle with the Colts.