Richard Pitino didn’t expect the rivalry with Wisconsin to be so one-sided after he picked up his first Border Battle win in his first year as Gophers basketball coach in 2014.
Now in his seventh season with the program, Pitino finally beat the Badgers again at home.
It helped to have Payton Willis bounce back from a shoulder injury to lead an offensive resurgence with 21 points in a 70-52 victory Wednesday in front of 11,389 at Williams Arena.
“I haven’t thought much about 2014,” Pitino said. “It’s great to win here. Obviously, this rivalry means so much to our fans, to our home state, which is obviously so great. When you play in the Barn, it’s got to be a special experience. You can’t let people come in here and take over your building.”
The Gophers (12-10, 6-6 Big Ten), who shot 9-for-22 from three-point range, led by as much as 17 points in the first half. Willis, who returned after missing last week’s loss at Illinois with a shoulder injury, scored 13 in the first half.
The former Vanderbilt transfer made his first four shots from the field, three of them three-pointers. He had scored in double figures only once in the previous 10 games while also recovering from an ankle injury.
“Even though I’ve been in a slump the past few games, the guys instilled confidence in me to shoot the ball when I’m open,” Willis said. “It’s never good being hurt, but it was kind of a blessing in disguise. I got a few days of rest.”
Marcus Carr finished with 12 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds. Daniel Oturu had 17 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks for the Gophers, who picked up a much-needed quality win to boost their NCAA tournament résumé.
The Badgers (13-10, 6-6) were coming off a tumultuous week that ended with an impressive home win against Michigan State. They got an emotional win last weekend without backcourt starters Brad Davison (suspension) and Kobe King (transfer), but the momentum failed to carry over.
Davison, who was suspended for an unsportsmanlike play against Iowa, returned to the lineup. But the Maple Grove native scored just four points in 24 minutes for the Badgers, who allowed their most points in a half this season. The Gophers led 45-32 at halftime after shooting 54% from the field, with 24 points in the paint.
“They were more physical and more aggressive,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “That’s a credit to Minnesota.”
The offensive onslaught continued to open the second half when Gabe Kalscheur and Oturu hit back-to-back three-pointers to extend Minnesota’s lead to 51-32.
Nearly a week between games helped the Gophers shake off their worst back-to-back offensive performances of the season. They shot just 28% in an 18-point home loss to Michigan State and had just one double-figure scorer in falling at Illinois. They had four players in double figures Wednesday.
One key factor against the Illinis was Willis’ absence. The 6-foot-5 Arkansas native hurt his shoulder in practice the day before the game. He was just getting fully healthy after missing three games because of a bad ankle. Fortunately for the Gophers, Willis’ most recent setback resulted in a quicker recovery.
The Gophers were the worst three-point shooting team in Big Ten play at 27.1% before breaking out Wednesday with five first-half threes.
Pitino picked up only his third victory against the Badgers during his tenure. Last season, the Gophers and Badgers split games by both winning on the road. Those counted as Quadrant 1 victories, the best possible résumé wins.
The Gophers weren’t in the field on any prominent NCAA tournament projections but picked up their fourth Quad 1 win Wednesday. There are several more opportunities ahead to help their cause.
“We just had to fight for what our goal is, which is to get into the NCAA tournament,” Oturu said.