As the seconds ticked off the clock, as the Gophers men’s basketball team polished off its first opponent in strong fashion, the Williams Arena rafters full of an announced 12,957 fans exhaled with joy.
Or was it relief?
Season openers are typically not categorized as must-win games, but after the Gophers lost out on top recruit Reid Travis of DeLaSalle earlier in the afternoon, and then announced the suspension of junior center Mo Walker shortly before tip-off, a victory to begin the 2013-14 certainly seemed to ease attendees’ spirits as they walked out into the chill.
Playing with a thinned frontcourt that was already short on bodies, the Gophers scrapped out an 81-62 victory over Lehigh in the first game for new coach Richard Pitino.
“Our effort definitely had to pick up,” said forward Joey King, an Eastview High School product who scored 20 points in his Gophers debut. “We played a little bit more minutes. But we gave it our all out there, and that’s all we can really do.”
Andre Hollins (18 points, five assists) and Austin Hollins (11 points, seven rebounds) were predictably reliable, but it was the frontcourt that made the difference.
Walker, who had a big game in Monday’s exhibition victory over Concordia (St. Paul), was suspended six games for violating an unspecified university policy.
“Mo is a loss,” Pitino said. “Every guy on the team is going to have to do a little bit to keep up.”
Said King: “We’re just behind him 100 percent, there’s no doubt about it,” King said. “We’re all family in here and we support him through this process.”
With Walker unavailable, the remaining frontcourt roles became much more important. The corps of forwards stepped up.
Center Elliott Eliason played the star, netting his first double-double in maroon and gold with 11 points and a career-high 17 rebounds, just one short of former Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe’s best.
King, who transferred to the Gophers from Drake, hit some tough shots inside and then stretched the defense by landing two three-pointers — although Pitino noted afterward that he was more impressed with the zero fouls from the aggressive forward.
“He thinks he’s playing football half the time — so to not foul was great,” Pitino said.
The Gophers hopped out to a quick 26-11 lead by stifling the Mountain Hawks defensively, both with the press and with the 2-3 zone. Lehigh shot 23.3 percent from the floor in the first half.
The Gophers padded their lead to 37-18 at halftime despite losing the rebound game by three boards. Eliason grabbed 11 rebounds after halftime and the Gophers ultimately outrebounded the Mountain Hawks 38-35.
“He’s been playing really well,” Pitino said of Eliason. “He works extremely hard, plays extremely hard every single day. And he’s carrying us right now.”
The Gophers were helped by Lehigh’s lack of size, with only one player on the roster taller than 6-8. Considering the lack of depth, Friday’s performance was a certain victory for a frontcourt unit that has been considered the weak link of the team.
But the Gophers will have to continue for five more games without the 6-10, 250-pound Walker. He will miss next week’s game at Richmond, as well as the opening matchup at the Maui Invitational, when the Gophers face Syracuse.
“It’s going to be tough,” Eliason said. “We haven’t had that great of a rebound night yet. … We are just going to have to work hard, out-scrap people, do other kinds of things to make up for it, and that’s really all we can do.”
Said Pitino: “We support Mo, we love Mo. Can’t wait to get him back in Maui. He’s going to be a big help to our basketball team.”