Amir Coffey spotted up in the right corner and launched a three-pointer as the seconds counted down in the first half Friday night.
After the ball sank through the net, the Williams Arena crowd came to life as their Gophers team took a nine-point lead into halftime against Southern Illinois.
Only a few minutes earlier, the Gophers had looked sluggish and appeared to be suffering from a Thanksgiving hangover. On top of that, they were playing without starting center Reggie Lynch, but they still managed to pull out a 57-45 victory over the Salukis.
“We needed a wake-up call there,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “We were not real connected. We were frustrated. That’s attributed to missing shots. Fortunately we played defense.”
Southern Illinois (3-3) shot just 31 percent, including 2-for-17 from beyond the arc.
The Gophers (6-0) saw their streak of five consecutive games with 80 points or more end on a night when they had their worst shooting performance of the season across the board. They were 38 percent from the field (21-for-55), 19 percent on three-pointers (3-for-16) and 55 percent from the foul line (12-for-22).
Coffey, who is averaging 20.7 points in his past three games, had a team-best 13 points Friday.
After injuring his ankle in the first half in Tuesday’s victory over Arkansas, Lynch was a game-time decision against Southern Illinois. Freshman Eric Curry ended up replacing Lynch in the starting lineup, finishing with eight points and 11 rebounds. But he also had five turnovers.
“He did some good things,” Pitino said of Curry. “Couple turnovers he got frustrated with. We kind of threw him into the fire. He had to play 35 minutes as a freshman. The rotations got a little bit screwed up there.”
The Gophers are off to their best start under Pitino, eclipsing the 5-0 record of his first season, 2013-14. Entering Friday, the Gophers had the best Rating Percentage Index in the Big Ten at No. 17. They couldn’t afford a bad loss to Southern Illinois (RPI No. 181).
The Salukis took an 18-14 lead at 8:25 in the first half, but Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason combined for nine points to spark a 15-2 run. Coffey’s three-pointer at the buzzer made it a 29-20 halftime advantage.
In the second half, Minnesota’s lead was cut to six points after a dunk from Thik Bol, who finished with 15 points and seven rebounds. Coffey and Curry answered.
With 1:33 left, Bol’s basket shrunk Minnesota’s lead to eight points; it had been up to 15. An undersized but athletic Southern Illinois team scored 26 points in the paint. But Coffey responded with a reverse layup, and Dupree McBrayer’s scoop shot ended the Salukis’ comeback hopes.
“We came out a little childish, a little flat thinking it was going to be an easy game,” said McBrayer, who equaled Mason with 11 points. “We’ve got to have the mind-set like every game is going to be like a Big Ten game.”
Lynch was Minnesota’s best low-post scoring threat and leads the Big Ten in shot blocking. The 6-10 Lynch is averaging 9.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.6 blocks. Curry, Murphy and Bakary Konate combined for 20 points and 24 rebounds, but they shot 8-for-23.
“It’s definitely different,” Mason said. “Reggie’s a big force in the middle.”
Pitino said Lynch’s status is uncertain for Monday’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup vs. No. 25 Florida State, the second-tallest team in the nation.
Lynch has dealt with a few injuries since transferring from Illinois State. He had rotator cuff surgery in February. He had surgery on a torn meniscus in September and was sidelined for a month.
Konate could see his role increase if Lynch is sidelined. The 6-11 junior had five rebounds and a block in a season-high 14 minutes Friday.
“I thought Bakary gave us some good minutes,” Pitino said. “But we’re not as complete without Reggie. We need to be healthy to be complete.”