When Richard Pitino and his Gophers basketball team looked back on the game film from Saturday’s bizarre win against Alabama, they only looked at the first 30 minutes or so.
Almost everyone else focused on the unbelievable, unusual and unheard of last 10 minutes, when three Alabama players outplayed five Minnesota players after ejections, a foul out and an injury left the Crimson Tide historically shorthanded.
“If you want to be critical of me as a 5-on-3 coach, go ahead,” Pitino said. “We beat a good team.”
Pitino and his players don’t care to even think about how to play against a 1-2 zone or defend three players ever again, especially since they were highly encouraged by the way they dominated a top-25 opponent for most of the game when it was 5-on-5.
In the biggest nonconference home game in more than a decade Wednesday against No. 10 Miami (Fla.), the No. 12 Gophers know they have to play like they did to start the Alabama game.
“We were rebounding the ball, we were defending, we were executing,” Pitino said. “So I think for 27 minutes, we were a really good team.”
This will be the first time Minnesota plays against a ranked opponent at Williams Arena in a nonconference game since beating No. 17 Georgia 72-69 in 2002.
The last time a top-10 opponent played at the Barn in nonconference was when No. 4 Cincinnati defeated No. 17 Minnesota 62-61 in 1998. Almost 20 years later, Gophers fans again can watch their Big Ten contenders face a top-10 nonconference opponent Wednesday night.
“It’s definitely exciting,” said junior Jordan Murphy, who leads the Big Ten with averages of 22 points and 12 rebounds per game. “This is definitely one of the most highly ranked teams I’ve played. Definitely a really good team — good test for us.”
Pitino motivated his players going into the Alabama game by saying “everyone is talking about how talented they are.” That helped fire up a team that already made a statement a couple weeks ago when it won 86-74 at Providence in the Gavitt Tipoff Games.
Captains Murphy and Nate Mason set the tone from the start against Alabama, combining to score all of Minnesota’s points for a 15-5 lead. The largest lead was 17 points with Murphy scoring all of his 19 points and 12 of his 14 rebounds in the first half alone.
“If they were going to throw a punch, we threw a bigger punch,” Murphy said. “They made a run late in the first half. We did a good job of weathering that. We played great team defense, and I think Nate’s leadership was very good for the first half.”
Mason, who scored 11 of his 20 points in the first six minutes of the second half, was ejected after a heated exchange with Alabama’s Collin Sexton with about 11 minutes remaining.
Sexton, who finished with 23 of his 40 points after Mason left, nearly led his team back after the Tide’s bench was ejected during a skirmish near their sideline. Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 with just three players.
Pitino talked to Mason after the game. His senior point guard knew he made a mistake.
“I’m going to give him a pass on it,” Pitino said. “He’s never shown that. He’s been composed for three years.”
The Gophers have another big game Wednesday where competitiveness and emotions will run high. They will be challenged by two players who, like Sexton, are potential first-round NBA draft prospects in Miami’s Bruce Brown Jr. and Lonnie Walker IV.
Murphy said he’s been asked how the Gophers (7-0) will handle Miami (5-0) if they could barely beat Alabama playing 5-on-3.
“I just remind people that you guys didn’t watch the first 30 minutes of that game,” Murphy said. “We were up 15-plus on a top-25 team. We were playing great basketball. We played outstanding basketball for the first 30 minutes. We did a good job of locking in and locking them up. I just think we played great.”