For the third time in as many games this season, Richard Pitino’s Gophers men’s basketball team found itself being outplayed during one half at home against a non-power conference opponent Friday night.
No longer are teams from conferences like the Summit League intimidated coming to play at Williams Arena. Having no fans allowed to attend might have something to do with it.
The Gophers have also looked a bit vulnerable as of late. They desperately needed a better rebounding effort Friday, and they got one to fuel their late rally in a 76-67 win over North Dakota.
“I thought our energy picked up in the second half,” Pitino said. “We pulled away there when we needed to.”
With just under 12 minutes left in the first half, North Dakota had a 22-11 lead on its Big Ten opponent. It was the largest deficit of the season for Pitino’s squad. But not by much.
The Gophers (4-0) trailed by nine in the first half last Saturday in the first of two games vs. Loyola Marymount. In the other, they escaped 67-64 on Monday after Marcus Carr’s last-second three-pointer.
Carr, who was second in the NCAA with 29.7 points per game, was held to seven of his 17 points in the first half Friday. Carr adjusted, had nine assists and took a back seat to his new backcourt teammate Both Gach.
The Utah transfer and Austin, Minn., native put the scoring load on his shoulders and scored 14 of his team-high 21 points in the first half, including a three-pointer before halftime for a 36-35 Minnesota advantage.
“As we continue to play more games teams are going to do a good job of scouting,” Gach said. “For Marcus, it was good for him to get other guys going.”
Gach also had a team-high nine rebounds, but the Gophers barely won the battle of the boards, 37-33. Monday against LMU, they won for only the second time the past two seasons (1-10 record last season) when being outrebounded. That included giving up 18 offensive boards.
“We used the last couple days of practice working on our rebounding,” Gach said. “I feel like it’s getting better, but it’s something we have to improve on. It’s something we have to clean up.”
Pitino has called Gach maybe the fastest guard in the Big Ten. The athletic 6-6 junior used his speed in the open court when the Gophers finally finished off defensive possessions by rebounding and getting the ball out in transition. They scored 16 fast-break points.
The Fighting Hawks (0-3), who were picked to finish sixth in the Summit League, hadn’t won in the series against Minnesota since 1928 — the same year the Barn opened.
At one point in the first half, UND was shooting 9-for-13 from the field. Hawks big men Filip Rebraca (23 points) and Mitchell Sueker, a Marshall, Minn., native, were outscoring Minnesota’s entire team 14-13 to start.
The U’s starting frontcourt of Liam Robbins and Brandon Johnson was on the court long enough to make an impact after both fouled out Monday against LMU. Robbins, a 7-foot Drake transfer, made it tough for UND to score in the paint with five blocks. Johnson, a Western Michigan grad transfer, had his best offensive game as a Gopher with 15 points.
North Dakota pulled within two points with 6:37 left in the second half, but Johnson highlighted a 10-2 run by converting a three-point play to give the Gophers a 67-58 lead two minutes later.
“The majority of my fouls [Monday] was being overaggressive,” Johnson said. “So I just kept my principles and stayed disciplined to not get silly fouls that will cost later in the game.”