There were a few positive developments for Minnesota basketball Tuesday night at Williams Arena:
1. Minnesotans bonded during the Gophers’ “Blackout,” wearing dark shirts honoring our state’s primary product: Black ice.
2. The Gophers are now well-positioned to defend their championship in the National Invitation Tournament.
3. The Gophers might never have to face D’Angelo Russell again.
Russell is Ohio State’s gloriously talented freshman guard, the kind of kid who plays like he punctuated his first steps with a between-the-legs dribble. The Gophers will not face Ohio State again this season, unless the teams meet in the Big Ten tournament, so the next time Minnesotans see him in person, he’ll probably be playing at Target Center.
Tuesday night, Richard Pitino got beat by the kind of player he might never be able to recruit to Minnesota.
Russell was a revelation for a half, and then disappeared. That he could dominate a Big Ten road game as a true freshman for a half is a credit to his basketball genius. That the Gophers were able to stop him in the second half is a credit to Pitino’s coaching ingenuity.
By the end, the Gophers had merely another loss, 74-72 in overtime. A loss that might cripple Pitino’s hopes of taking the Gophers to the NCAA tournament, perhaps even of reaching .500 in the Big Ten. But he did his job last night. He gave the less-talented team a puncher’s chance.
“D’Angelo Russell in the first half — that was an impressive performance,” Pitino said. “I was proud of the way our guys guarded him in the second half.”
The game began with Gophers senior Andre Hollins covering Russell. In the first half, Russell made 10 of 12 shots, including all five of his three-pointers.
“That was my fault,” Hollins said. “I wasn’t fighting to get over the screens. I was giving him open shots. You can’t let that happen. He’s running all over our gym smiling and laughing. That can’t happen.”
At halftime, Pitino instructed his players to deny Russell the ball and, if he got it anyway, to extend their defense, pressuring him even near midcourt, to keep him from getting up a head of steam toward the basket.
He also instructed his players to trap Russell when he tried to dribble off a pick, essentially creating a temporary double-team.
Ohio State was good enough to take advantage of open men, hitting their forwards and centers for back-door cuts. But without Russell, with his hair-trigger release, scoring at will, the Gophers made it a game.
“We got beat by a very good team,” Pitino said. “Now we have to stay positive.”
That’s easier today than after the Gophers’ first two losses in the Big Ten. They blew a lead against a mediocre Purdue team. They often played mindlessly in a loss on the road against a good Maryland team. Hollins barely contributed in either game.
Tuesday, Hollins, after another sleepwalking first half, found himself. He made three three-pointers in the second half, and played better defense.
“I just had to focus more,” he said. “Nothing more than that.”
Pitino will be second-guessed this morning for at least one decision. The Gophers had the ball for the last time with 5.6 seconds left, inbounding from their own baseline. Mathieu got the ball and dribbled to midcourt with 4.4 seconds remaining.
Call a timeout?
“I thought they [the Buckeyes] were getting stops in the halfcourt,” Pitino said. “I wanted to open it up.”
It didn’t work, but that’s generally the right call. Too often coaches try to over-manage late-game situations.
Mathieu in the open court with time to make a play was probably his team’s best option.
Had it worked, the Gophers would have pulled off an upset, one that would have been due to a belated show of grit, and the kind of in-game coaching savvy we haven’t seen often in Williams Arena over the past decade.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at souhanunfiltered.com. On