Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino asked Akeem Springs to speak to the team last month about the midmajor mentality when playing a power conference opponent.
Springs, a senior graduate transfer, was on the other side of the matchup when he helped Wisconsin-Milwaukee beat the Gophers in Minneapolis a year ago. But his 19 points and seven rebounds helped to keep Minnesota from falling into the same trap in a 74-68 victory Tuesday night against New Jersey Institute of Technology in front of an announced 8,189 at Williams Arena.
“I was a midmajor guy,” Springs said. “I know how it is. We come in thinking this is the game that can put us on the map. That’s how we looked at it.”
Trailing throughout the first half Tuesday, the Gophers (8-1) seemed surprised their Atlantic Sun Conference opponent could compete with them despite Springs’ warning.
Minnesota opened with a 12-4 run but managed to hold only a 37-35 halftime lead. Not until the last couple of minutes of the game did Pitino’s team gain control.
“We didn’t have great energy leading up,” Pitino said. “That’s what I talked about more than anything was, ‘Your approach to preparation has got to be better. You can’t be bored with little things.’ ”
Damon Lynn, the active Division I career scoring leader, had scored 33 points with eight three-pointers in NJIT’s loss at Purdue this year. The 5-11 senior led his team to an upset at Michigan in 2014, but he had only 12 points on 5-for-24 shooting from the field (2-for-15 from three-point range) Tuesday.
The Highlanders (5-5) still looked confident they could pull off their second-ever victory over a Big Ten opponent after taking a 61-58 lead with 7:13 remaining in the game.
Jordan Murphy, who had 16 points in Saturday’s 56-52 comeback victory against Vanderbilt in Sioux Falls, S.D., was on the bench with four fouls midway through the second half when NJIT took a 54-51 lead.
Springs’ two free throws and his fourth three-pointer twice gave the Gophers a one-point advantage, but the Highlanders answered.
After Nate Mason’s three-pointer tied the score 61-61, he drove the lane and dropped the ball off to Reggie Lynch for an emphatic dunk that put Minnesota on top again. Amir Coffey then followed with two free throws to extend it to 65-61 with 5:52 remaining.
Mason had a season-high 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting. Coffey finished with 13 points and eight rebounds. Lynch added nine points, seven rebounds and five of the team’s 10 blocks.
The Gophers have tied last season’s victory total with four games left in the nonconference season. It took them until Feb. 23 against Rutgers at home to get win No. 8 last season. But the goals are much higher this year. Springs wants to make the NCAA tournament in his final college season.
“[Tuesday] was a [season-high scoring total] for me, but I didn’t feel good during the game,” Springs said. “I didn’t feel like my team was playing to the best of its ability. I didn’t feel good because I understand the details are going to get us to where we want to go.”
Bakary Konate finished with seven rebounds and three blocks in 10 minutes off the bench. But Springs, a team captain, was the game-changer with 11 points in the second half against NJIT.
The 6-4 guard hadn’t played power forward this year, but Springs replaced Murphy, who fouled out with 3:48 left in the game. Murphy had only two points and four rebounds in 15 minutes.
After being fouled rebounding a missed free throw, Springs hit one of two shots from the free-throw line to make it a three-point game. Mason’s floater with 1:19 left gave the Gophers enough cushion to escape.
“Akeem made big, winning plays,” Mason said, “whether it was a boxout or making free throws. He showed his leadership throughout the second half, and he kind of pulled everybody together.”