LAHAINA, HAWAII – The veins in Richard Pitino’s neck seemed to bulge bigger and bigger as his point guard drew nearer.
The Gophers had just fallen behind 40-33 in the first half to Division II Chaminade in the game to avoid last place in the Maui Invitational. The Gophers coach called a timeout and knew exactly whom he wanted to talk to: DeAndre Mathieu, who got an earful.
Perhaps Mathieu’s worth has never been clearer.
After all, it was the 5-9 floor general whom Pitino got after for the Gophers’ slow start and overall poor play on Wednesday, and it was Mathieu who ultimately turned all that around.
Afterward, asked what had changed down the stretch, Pitino gestured across the podium table.
“This guy sitting two seats to my left finally started to defend like a fast point guard,” the coach said. “When he started to turn up the heat, everybody else fed off him. He was a huge part of this run. Thirty-five minutes he played, and doing that in the press, he saved us.”
The Gophers trailed by nine with 11 minutes, 49 seconds to go in the game after Frankie Eteuati made two free throws. That’s when Mathieu came alive.
The point guard drove to the basket, got fouled and hit both free throws. In that final stretch, Mathieu had eight points, four rebounds, three assists and a steal while pushing the Gophers offensively and setting the tone for the press, which looked much sharper in the second half. Behind him, the Gophers finished on a 28-7 run for an 83-68 victory.
“We just decided to fight,” Mathieu said. “No doubt about it, Coach lit a fire under us to come out at halftime with the intensity. … The guys in the huddle, the team came together, it was like we’ve got to make a run now. It’s now or never.”
Pitino said before heading to Maui that he called his friend Brad Stevens, the former Butler and current Boston Celtics coach, to get advice for the tough travel. Butler attended the Maui Invitational last season.
“He said get in as early as possible and get out as quickly as possible, and I would probably schedule a Division III team first game back,” Pitino said. “I said, well, we don’t have that choice. We’re playing Florida State [on Tuesday].”
Wednesday, the players said it felt like their bodies had just adjusted to local time, hours before traveling back.
“It felt really early today compared to yesterday,” guard Malik Smith said. “We came out slow.”
Hollins is quiet
Andre Hollins did not look like himself against Arkansas and Chaminade. In those two games, the star junior guard shot only 5-for-18 from the floor and had 19 points, four rebounds and one assist.
Still, Pitino said he’s not worried about Hollins, who played only 14 minutes Wednesday after accumulating four fouls.
“I think today was just foul trouble,” Pitino said. “I thought he had a good tournament. He did a lot of things good defensively, showed great leadership, so no, I don’t worry about that at all.”