Getting to the foul line wasn’t an issue for the Gophers men’s basketball team last season. You could say it was one of the biggest reasons why the Gophers were able to earn an NCAA tournament berth.
That’s why coach Richard Pitino had been frustrated with how few free throws the Gophers were shooting this year, but that disturbing trend turned around significantly in the past three games.
The Gophers seemed like their old selves Saturday, making a season-best 29 free throws in a 89-62 victory over Florida International at Williams Arena.
“I do think free-throw shooting cost us some games early,” Pitino said. “I don’t know if we’re a 29-for-30 type team. But we have the same routine every practice for the last eight years I’ve been a head coach. We’re clearly better than what we had shown early. And I thought it zapped us a little bit.”
In the five losses this season, the Gophers shot just 57.8% at the foul line, but they were also getting only 9.6 points a game on free throws. That was significantly down from 16 points per game last season at the stripe.
“I don’t worry about the percentages as much as the amount of points we can get from it,” Pitino said. “And we were not getting enough points from it earlier in the year.”
The 29 free throws were the most by the Gophers since going 31-for-45 in a 75-74 loss to Michigan State on Dec. 27, 2016. Minnesota’s previous high this season was 19-for-30 in a 73-68 home loss to DePaul on Nov. 29.
Sophomore guard Marcus Carr, who had 17 points, eight assists and seven rebounds Saturday, finished 6-for-7 on free throws. Gabe Kalscheur, Daniel Oturu, Sam Freeman and Alihan Demir were a combined 17-for-17.
Willis sidelined again
Gophers junior guard Payton Willis missed his second consecutive game because of a left ankle injury Saturday, and he was again replaced by freshman Tre’ Williams in the starting lineup.
Willis, who is averaging 11 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists this season, was in a walking boot and wearing street clothes on the bench against Florida International. His status for Thursday’s game at Purdue is uncertain.
“With Payton being out, we needed guys to step up,” Kalscheur said. “I feel like I’ve been more aggressive on the offensive side.”