DES MOINES – Gabe Kalscheur threw up his arms and held three fingers high. He then strummed his air guitar and took a celebratory shove from teammate Daniel Oturu at midcourt.
Just a sharpshooting freshman from Minnesota having a little fun, after some very serious three-pointers. Kalscheur’s five long-range connections and 24 points helped the Gophers dismantle Louisville 86-76 in Thursday’s NCAA tournament first-round game.
Tenth-seeded Minnesota’s upset of the seventh-seeded Cardinals was the program’s first NCAA tournament victory since 2013. Coach Richard Pitino and his team rewarded the few thousand Maroon and Gold fans who made the short trek down I-35 and created a home-court feel inside Wells Fargo Arena.
Pitino laughed about Kalscheur’s guitar strumming, joking that the young guard could “do whatever he wants” if he hits five three-pointers. The Gophers averaged 5.2 made threes entering the NCAA tournament — not only last in the Big Ten but ranked 341st among the 353 teams in Division I, even after hitting 11 on Thursday.
“It’s a big atmosphere and a big stage,” said Kalscheur, an Edina native and former DeLaSalle star. “Very big for us and our community and our fans. Just big that we’re advancing and moving on.”
The Gophers (22-13) play in Saturday’s second round against No. 2 seed Michigan State (29-6), which came from behind to escape from No. 15 seed Bradley 76-65 on the same court following the Minnesota-Louisville game. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:45 p.m.
The Big Ten champion Spartans defeated the Gophers in their only previous meeting this year, 79-55 in East Lansing on Feb. 9.
Much was written and said about Pitino facing the team once run by his father, Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, who rebuilt the Cardinals into a championship-level program before his firing in 2017 amid a federal bribery investigation. Overshadowed by that story line was the fact the Gophers have a talented, balanced lineup and could win in the NCAA tournament despite finishing seventh in the Big Ten.
“It’s very hard to get to the tournament, especially in our league,” said Pitino, after his first NCAA tournament victory as a head coach. “We had some ups and downs. The focus was on preparing. It didn’t matter who we played. I’m proud of our players. I’m proud of our university that they can be a part of this.”
Minnesota shot 50 percent from the field for the second time in three games, which included a second victory over Purdue in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals last week. Before that, the Gophers’ shooting percentage had been in the 40s for 11 consecutive games.
Junior guard Amir Coffey nailed the last of Minnesota’s six first-half threes with three seconds left before halftime for a 38-33 lead. Coffey continuing his recent hot streak was the first step in the upset. The team’s best scorer had 13 of his 18 points in the first half.
The threes continued to fall in the second half, as Jordan Murphy opened with a three-pointer — a surprise, considering his damage is typically done in the post and he’d made only six previous threes all season.
Then it was Kalscheur’s turn. The freshman drilled the next four threes, including back-to-back shots to make it 59-43 near the 12-minute mark. It was a key sequence for the Gophers, who were concerned about Murphy when he left the game because of back pain after a hard fall. The All-Big Ten senior forward was checked out by the team trainer and later returned.
Darius Perry’s long, banked-in three to beat the shot clock and a jumper 39 seconds later cut Louisville’s deficit to 76-69 with 2:05 to play. But the Gophers hit 10 consecutive free throws in the last minute to seal their second NCAA tournament victory since the vacated 1997 Final Four season.
The Gophers returned five players from their last NCAA tournament team, including starters Murphy, Coffey and senior guard Dupree McBrayer, who combined for 49 points against the Cardinals. They were motivated to get back to this stage after losing to Middle Tennessee in Milwaukee in the first round in 2017.
“Means a lot to us and it means a lot to our state and our fans and our program,” Murphy said. “It’s really significant to us, being in this position two years ago where we lost and now just being able to redeem that loss and win and keep moving and advancing.”