RICHMOND, VA. – Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino had a message for his players heading into their first road game of the season:
The Gophers would find out who they are here.
To an extent, they gave a telling glimpse Saturday night, adjusting to playing a zone defense in the game’s final minutes to blow past Richmond 74-59 at the Robins Center.
Both Andre (26 points, seven rebounds, two assists, one turnover) and Austin Hollins (recording his second consecutive double-double with 11 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and no turnovers) were critical in turning the team around, even though the latter sat for most of the first half.
“I think it’s huge,” Austin Hollins said after the Gophers improved to 3-0 under their new coach. “There are a lot of guys [on this team] that haven’t played in this type of environment. We faced a lot of adversity tonight.”
After struggling against a plucky Richmond team through most of the game, the Gophers regrouped, holding the Spiders (2-1) without a point after they took a 59-55 lead with 7 minutes, 25 seconds to play. The Gophers finished by scoring the final 19 points of the game.
A quick 12-0 start slipped away when the Gophers — who had Austin Hollins, Elliott Eliason and DeAndre Mathieu on the bench with two fouls for most of the first half — struggled to defend Richmond. For much of the first half, Andre Hollins switched to point guard, leading an all-new lineup with Wally Ellenson and Malik Smith in the other two guard spots and Oto Osenieks and Joey King combining for an undersized frontcourt.
It looked less than comfortable. The pressure defense that the Gophers have been using became a weakness with the quick Richmond guards whizzing past them for easy transition baskets.
“We let them get a full head of steam,” Andre Hollins said. “We didn’t get back tips and we didn’t give our big men too much help and they were attacking them.”
It was an offense that Pitino called “Princeton on steroids” because of how hard Richmond drove the ball, and one that kept the Gophers baffled for much of the second half. Richmond took its first lead with 1:47 to play before halftime and then stayed toe-to-toe through most of the second.
The Gophers took a timeout after Kendall Anthony’s layup gave Richmond its 59-55 lead. When the Gophers returned to the court, they ditched the press and switched to a half-court zone defense. Suddenly, it was Richmond that looked rushed, and the Gophers capitalized.
“We went zone because they were carving our man up really good,” Pitino said. “We couldn’t get stops and we zone and it worked. Their man offense is really tough to guard, [coach Chris Mooney] is phenomenal.”
The Gophers attacked the boards down the stretch, out-rebounding Richmond 54-37, with big help from both Hollinses. Eliason pulled down nine rebounds and King had seven.
The experience, Pitino said, is one he is thankful for this early in the season — to both highlight the initial struggles and emphasize the resolve in the end.
“They’ve never had a Big Ten program in their building — that’s no coincidence,” Pitino said of Richmond, which went 19-15 a season ago. “Nobody wants to come and play here because it’s a great program, it’s a tough place to play. So to be able to come in here and get the win and to be able to look back now, as we go into Big Ten play and we start getting some true road games, to just be able to reference back to the toughness they showed today.”