When Both Gach made his Gophers debut in November, he imagined an entire section at Williams Arena from his hometown of Austin, Minn., chanting his name after every three-pointer or highlight dunk on the historic raised floor.
The 6-6 junior transferred to the Gophers from Utah to be closer to family and friends, to have them right there supporting him in the crowd.
Because of the pandemic, they didn't get to see him play in-person until mid-January. His older brother and cousins were there to see the Gophers upset then-No. 7 Michigan.
But it was all so fleeting. Over the past month, Gach and the Gophers have hurtled into a downward spiral, punctuated by Thursday's humiliating loss to Northwestern. Coach Richard Pitino appears to be back on the hot seat, and in the midst of all this is Gach, who is too injured and too flustered to help turn things around.
"Both is really hobbled," Pitino said of Gach, who went scoreless and played just 10 minutes against Northwestern because of a foot injury.
The last time Gach went home to Austin was in the fall. He stopped by to check on his siblings and mother, who, despite several back surgeries, still works nights and long hours to support their family in the U.S. and back in her native country of South Sudan.
"His main goal was to come back and be around family," said Gach's older brother, Gach Gach. "That he can't do that might be contributing to him struggling, in my opinion."
A game-changing performer for the Gophers earlier this season, Both Gach has made it tough for family to watch him now. He's definitely not himself heading into Saturday's game at Nebraska.
Besides the lingering injury, it's also been difficult for him to keep his mind only on basketball. His mother's ongoing health issues and her family tragedy in Sudan weigh heavily on him, Gach's brother said.
"It's something that brings him down," he said. "We're trying to keep his morale and happiness up. But during these times it gets tough."
Working late shifts at Hormel Foods in Austin over the years, Martha Deng, like many Sudanese immigrants in town, has spent more time working than at home with her children.
"She means a lot," Both Gach said. "There were times where I didn't see her for a couple days because of her work schedule and my school schedule. Always put in the work and never complained."
Gach's parents escaped a country suffering through its second Civil War when they made it from South Sudan to a refugee camp in Kenya before traveling to New York in 1996. They eventually followed work to Minnesota, living in Brooklyn Park and Faribault before setting down roots in Austin.
For as long as Gach and his twin brother, Duoth, can remember, their parents were divorced. Their mother raised five of her seven children mostly on her own. Her oldest boy, Gach Gach, took his younger brothers to the local YMCA to shoot hoops until the doors closed at 9 p.m.
"We did everything together," Both Gach said, "Whether it was playing sports or hanging out."
Things have since gotten harder on his family. Both Gach's grandmother died of natural causes last year. His uncle was murdered during the strife and violence going on in Sudan.
A trip his mother had planned to her homeland for the first time since she departed decades ago had to be canceled because of COVID-19 concerns last year. She now looks after both her own kids and her brother's children. Martha Deng sends money, shoes and supplies to help with their school.
"It's been difficult with some family members who passed away," Both Gach said. "My mom tries to collect our old clothes and things. And she sends it back to our family in Africa. For us, it's about trying to help them out as much as we can."
'I'm going D-I'
Gach Gach was the first Sudanese high school star at Austin, leading the Packers to back-to-back state runner-up finishes in 2013 and 2014.
Playing basketball at West Texas A&M, the 6-4 guard went to an NCAA Division II Final Four and became the first in his immediate family to earn a college degree, in 2019.
But the elder Gach already could see his younger brothers had the talent and potential to surpass his own.
"I pretty much knew early on," said Gach Gach, who now lives in North Dakota. "They told me, 'I'm going D-I.' I said, 'OK, let's get to work.' We were trying to inspire a younger generation. Pretty much set your dreams and anything can happen."
The uber-athletic Gach twins matched their brother's success on the hardwood. They teamed up to lead the Packers to the state tournament and finished runner-up in 2017.
Duoth starred at Lake Region State College in North Dakota, but he's back in Austin now working on his academics to be eligible to play Division I basketball.
While he was at Utah for two years, Both saw how much they inspired the Sudanese youth in Austin. He was once like them, learning the game at the same YMCA — and now he was playing D-I ball.
"There were kids trying to take my shoes off," Both Gach said about being home. "They wanted my jersey and all the gear and bags I brought home. I know these kids look at me as their big role model. I just try to tell them to stay focused."
Staying healthy and confident
Utah fans were wondering what happened to Both Gach last season when a knee injury led to inconsistency in his Pac-12 play.
When Gach finally got healthy, he averaged 20 points during a late three-game stretch. That included a career-high 28 points in the regular-season finale last March to help the Utes beat Colorado in overtime. Gach finished the season strong enough that he declared for the NBA draft to explore the process before returning to college.
Could there be a similar turnaround with the Gophers? They need it with junior guard Gabe Kalscheur sidelined by a broken finger. Gach lost his starting job in late January, but they've looked to him as a bench spark.
"We saw earlier in the year the amount of good things Both can do," Pitino said.
Gach complemented point guard Marcus Carr nicely when he averaged 14.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists and shot 57% in seven nonconference games. But he's struggled in the Big Ten, averaging 4.1 points on 29% shooting in 16 games.
The transfer home hasn't been what Gach hoped for, but he's doing what he can to just be on the court, carrying the weight of his family's troubles and a hometown that adores him.
"Obviously, I haven't been performing how I should be," Gach said earlier this season. "For me it's about being confident when I'm out there on the court and putting other things aside."