Richard Pitino is convinced this is his deepest Gophers men’s basketball team yet.
His frontcourt depth was put to the test in the second game of the season Saturday.
With foul trouble and lingering injuries forcing the Gophers to go deeper than usual this early in the season, Pitino still has to figure out who he can count on consistently inside after the loss of Daniel Oturu to the NBA.
Still, the Gophers are fortunate that All-Big Ten guard Marcus Carr returned — and is playing his best basketball to open the season. The junior guard picked up where he left off in the opener with 22 of his 28 points in the first half, helping his team erase an early nine-point deficit in an 88-73 victory over Loyola Marymount at Williams Arena.
“They’ve got Big Ten size,” Pitino said of the Lions, who had four starters 6-6 or taller. “They were tough. They were physical. There was a lull there in the middle of the first half where Marcus took over. We needed that.”
The 6-2 Carr, who scored 35 points to tie his career high in Wednesday’s 99-69 victory over Wisconsin-Green Bay, followed that up with the best first-half performance for the Gophers since Oturu had 20 points at halftime vs. Michigan last season.
Oturu signed a two-year contract with the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday. Carr looked like an NBA-caliber guard with his offensive explosion in the first half, which his teammates knew was coming because of a certain look in his eyes.
“It’s kind of similar to like LeBron [James] like Game 6 or Game 7,” senior forward Brandon Johnson said. “That type of look. There’s no talking. It’s just like, ‘All right, we’ve got to get this done. We’re messing up here. Get your act together.’ ”
The Gophers (2-0) know they will likely only go as far as Carr can lead them this season, but getting consistency from his supporting cast might be just as important.
Loyola Marymount (1-1) led 19-10 in the first half, as the talented Gophers backcourt struggled early. Carr, Both Gach and Gabe Kalscheur combined to score 66 points Wednesday, but they were 2-for-11 from the floor to open Saturday.
But the Gophers would outscore the Lions 31-18 from there until halftime, with 12 consecutive points from Carr during a four-minute stretch. Carr shot 8-for-12 in the first half, while the rest of the team was 6-for-18. The Gophers led 41-37 at halftime.
Carr scored only two field goals in the second half, but the Gophers picked up the slack with a balanced effort inside and out to pull away.
Gach, who had 17 points, six assists and three steals, opened the second half with Minnesota’s first two baskets, including being rewarded for running the floor by Carr.
The Gophers held the Lions scoreless for a four-minute stretch and finished with 19 points off 23 LMU turnovers. They won the rebounding battle 40-33, including a 23-16 edge in the second half.
“One of the things we needed to do better was rebounding,” Gach said. “They’re a team with Big Ten size. For us, it was kind of a surprise even though the coach was telling us. Sometimes you have to see it to believe it.”
Gophers 7-footer Liam Robbins sat most of the first half because of foul trouble, but he still finished with 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 19 minutes. Loyola Marymount 7-3 center Mattias Markusson was held to six points after scoring 19 in his first outing Wednesday.
Johnson, the Western Michigan grad transfer who splits time at power forward with Eric Curry, had sort of a coming-out party in the second half, when he scored all eight of his points.
Johnson, who had been battling an ankle injury, muscled in a layup to make it 49-39 with 17:16 left. He later scored five straight points, including a three-pointer for a 71-52 lead.
“We just needed a presence out there,” Johnson said. “I just felt like me bringing my energy on both ends of the floor would energize everybody and get us jump-started.”