SALT LAKE CITY – Richard Pitino called it the worst start to a game since he has been coaching the Gophers men’s basketball program the past six years.
Giving up the first 16 points at Utah tested his team’s resolve like nothing it faced yet this season.
Coming off back-to-back respectable losses against Oklahoma and Butler away from home, the Gophers were being run off the court in the first 4½ minutes in front of an announced 12,760 at Jon M. Huntsman Center.
They looked flat. They looked sluggish. They looked really overmatched.
As one-sided as the game started, the Gophers erased the 16-point deficit and had opportunities to get their first road victory before falling 73-69 on Friday night for their third loss in a row.
“We looked tired,” Pitino said. “We looked like we were convincing ourselves that the altitude was a factor. Even though, we showed that it wasn’t. Once mentally we got over it, we were good. We settled in. Good fight back. Certainly, got to be ready to go earlier than that.”
Sophomore Daniel Oturu, who finished with 21 points and 18 rebounds, was seemingly unstoppable with a double-double in the first half, but the assistance from his teammates came too late.
The Gophers (1-3), who shot 12-for-33 from three-point range, trailed only 70-68 following Marcus Carr’s three-pointer with 23 seconds left to play.
Leading the entire game, the Utes (3-0) nearly fell behind for the first time in the waning seconds. But Both Gach’s two free throws after Carr’s basket gave them the cushion they needed. Gach, an Austin, Minn., product, tied Timmy Allen with a team-best 19 points for Utah, which shot 53% from the field.
“They came out and punched us in the mouth, but I felt like we weathered the storm,” said Oturu, who has 45 points, 28 rebounds and six blocks in the Gophers’ past two games. “We’ve got to go out and start the game playing hard right away.”
Alihan Demir, who lost his starting power forward spot to Jarvis Omersa on Friday, opened the second half with five of his nine points, including a layup that made it 39-38. Without looking for Oturu, the Gophers came up empty on five consecutive possessions with a chance to pull ahead.
Still, Tre’ Williams and Gabe Kalscheur nailed back-to-back threes to again get the Gophers within a point. Kalscheur, who was ice cold the first three games, had 11 of his 13 points in the second half.
Kalscheur’s layup cut his team’s deficit to 61-59 with less than three minutes to play. The deficit stretched to eight, but Carr’s two threes under a minute forced Utah to have to win the game at the free-throw line. Carr finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and six assists.
Despite opening the first half trailing 19-3, the Gophers were carried by Oturu, who scored his team’s first 10 points, including a pair of three-pointers for the second straight game. The 6-10 Cretin-Derham Hall product had his mother, father and older sister with her newborn baby in attendance to cheer him on.
But Oturu couldn’t wait to return home and play.
After three consecutive games away from Williams Arena, the Gophers return home Nov. 21 against Central Michigan, the first game of a four-game homestand. They will look to avoid their first four-game losing streak in nonconference play since 2006-07.
“It seems like forever,” Oturu said about how long it felt on the road. “But we’re going to take these next four [home] games serious. One game at a time. We’re going to try to get a win.”