Gophers players stared at each other bewildered midway through the first half Monday night, trying to figure out how to score against Utah’s 2-3 zone defense.
With All-Big Ten forward Jordan Murphy on the bench in foul trouble, Minnesota didn’t have any answer offensively while falling behind in its first test of the season.
That was until the U’s zonebuster help turn the game around.
Freshman Gabe Kalscheur scored 12 of his 19 points in the first half and hit five three-pointers overall to lead Minnesota to a 78-69 victory over the Utes in front an announced crowd of 11,554 at Williams Arena, 3,000 more fans than attended the season opener.
“Gabe Kalscheur’s not even a little bit of a surprise,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “He takes his approach to the game seriously. He doesn’t mess around. Rarely do you see that from freshmen. He’s just got a pro mentality.”
Murphy came back strong after sitting most of the first half to finish with 11 points, 17 rebounds and five assists. Amir Coffey added 14 points and six assists for Minnesota (2-0), which shot 60 percent in the second half.
The Gophers don’t play their next home game until Big Ten play begins Dec. 5 against Nebraska, so this was a critical win to pick up for their NCAA tournament résumé. They open the Vancouver Showcase against Texas A&M on Sunday night, but also play Santa Clara and Washington in the event across the border Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Utes (1-1), who last played Minnesota in an NIT victory in 2003 and lost to Penn State in last season's NIT title game, cut a 15-point second-half deficit to 62-57 on a jumper from Sedrick Barefield near the six-minute mark, but they couldn’t get any closer.
Freshman Daniel Oturu, who had 13 points and four blocks Monday, was the crown jewel of Pitino’s 2018 recruiting class, but Kalscheur has turned out to be the steal of the group.
The former DeLaSalle standout scored 38 points, going lights out from beyond the arc in a state playoff game in front of Gophers coaches last season, so Pitino knew he had something special as a shooter.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Minnesota Mr. Basketball finalist eventually impressed the Gophers with other parts of his game, such as defense and basketball IQ to earn a starting role in last week’s 104-76 season-opening win against Omaha. Oturu was the freshman everyone predicted would play major minutes right away, not Kalscheur.
“I didn’t project him to be the starter,” Pitino said. “But I put a premium on defense. And if you’re going to play hard and you’re going to defend, you’re going to play.”
On Monday night, Kalscheur’s offense was desperately needed when the Utes used a 9-0 run to take a 16-12 lead after back-to-back Minnesota turnovers. At that point, the Gophers were only 5-for-15 from the field.
Oturu’s dunk ended a near three-minute scoring drought, but back-to-back three-pointers from Kalscheur and Coffey ignited the 10-0 run. Kalscheur’s outside shooting drew multiple defenders away from the paint, so late in the first half he zipped a pass to fellow freshman Jarvis Omersa for an emphatic dunk. Kalscheur’s fourth three-pointer then extended it to a 33-26 halftime advantage.
Last season, the Gophers ranked 10th in three-point percentage (34.6) and threes made (218) in the Big Ten. They hit 10 threes against Omaha. Minnesota was only 2-for-13 from long distance other than Kalscheur, but his big shooting night was enough to put pressure on Utah’s zone.
“We’re very confident in his ability to shoot,” Murphy said of Kalscheur. “That’s something we’ve been missing for a very long time since I’ve been here.”