LAHAINA, HAWAII – As the seconds waned Monday, the tension of the Gophers’ lingering hope was almost audible among the hefty contingent of Minnesota fans in the Lahaina Civic Center.
Hamstrung by a short bench and undersized frontcourt and further debilitated by foul trouble, the Gophers never were supposed to be close, much less this close, to upsetting No. 8 Syracuse — the top-ranked team in the Maui Invitational — in the opening round. Yet that’s where they found themselves, down by two points with two minutes remaining.
The Gophers faithful watched as Austin Hollins blocked Tyler Ennis’ shot at the rim to get the ball back with 1 minute, 45 seconds to go.
But Gophers guard Malik Smith — hot all day from three-point range — excitedly threw away the gift. C.J. Fair (16 points, 10 rebounds) scored on the ensuing Syracuse possession and the Orange hit six free throws down the stretch to seal the 75-67 victory.
The Gophers will play Arkansas at 1 p.m. CST on Tuesday.
“When you’re building a program and you’re at the early, early stages, you want to show you’re going to compete on every single possession,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “Our guys did that tonight. Tough game to be undermanned. … We just had to make it work.”
The Gophers showed impressive scrappiness all game despite their already thin frontcourt being furthered hampered by foul calls. Center Mo Walker was out serving the final game of his six-game suspension and Joey King (nine points, five rebounds) and Elliott Eliason (six points, nine rebounds) each got into foul trouble early in the second half. Eliason picked up his fourth foul with 10:49 remaining and King collected his fourth less than two minutes later, stifling the interior defense that had kept Minnesota afloat.
“We tried to drive at the big guy [Eliason],” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We wanted to get him in foul trouble, and when he was out, we made a 10-point run. He’s a big difference-maker when he’s [in] there.”
Even so, Minnesota was able to recover from two big deficits after trailing 39-36 at halftime. After Syracuse opened a 14-point lead at 52-38 with 15:54 left in the second half, Eliason returned from sitting after his third foul, and Smith — who scored 16 points, with four three-pointers — hit a pair of key threes that cut the Orange lead to 56-52 with 11:39 to play.
Syracuse stretched the advantage back to 63-56 before King — who brushed off a hard foul in the paint which seemed to aggravate his fractured jaw — scored two big baskets and Andre Hollins hit a pair of free throws to allow the Gophers to creep within 67-65 with 2:13 remaining.
The Gophers — who connected on nine of 22 three-pointers, including six in the first half — looked initially overwhelmed when Syracuse broke open a 12-2 lead. But from there, Minnesota instigated a 15-2 run, holding the Orange scoreless for more than five minutes.
The Gophers, effectively working the Syracuse 2-3 zone with high-low passes and three-point shots, took a 17-14 advantage on an Andre Hollins midrange jump shot. Syracuse shot only 38.2 percent from the field in the first half before rebounding to connect on 50 percent of its shots in the second.
“We prepared well for it,” Andre Hollins said of the zone. “We had some lapses where the game got stagnant and I think we handled them well. It came to just a few plays. We knew we had that game.”