From the sideline, Richard Pitino searched the faces of his young team.
Just before halftime, the Gophers men’s basketball team had put Louisiana Monroe down by as many as 15. Now, a dramatic rally capped by a pair of free throws by Travis Munnings had catapulted Louisiana Monroe into a one-point lead and put the Gophers in real danger for the first time with 6 minutes, 44 seconds to play.
Could this budding bunch of Gophers stop such a dramatic shift in momentum?
What their coach saw was a determination his team lacked a year ago, when it lost nine games by one or two possessions. The Gophers perked up just when they needed to, shutting down the Warhawks offense and ensuring their opponents’ late surge was short-lived.
Louisiana Monroe went scoreless in nine of its final 11 possessions and the Gophers pulled away down the stretch, winning 67-56 at Williams Arena on Sunday.
“When it was time to respond, we responded well,” Pitino said. “We would have never done that last year. And certainly, it’s very, very early, but I liked what I saw.”
The Gophers sank 20 of 22 attempts from the free-throw line to overcome a day in which they lost the lost the rebound battle 43-41 and shot only 31 percent from the floor. Joey King led them for the second game, recording 20 points to go along with eight rebounds, and the senior forward sank six free throws and scored a putback in the final 6:25 to spark a team in desperate need.
After pulling away from the Warhawks in the first half, the Gophers (2-0) found their opponent creeping up from behind in the second.
Down 11, Louisiana Monroe (1-1) launched an 18-6 run to take the lead at 51-50, stirring an announced crowd of 9,915 that seemed to be napping through much of the first half.
Then as fast as it turned one way, the tide shifted again. The Gophers, who had started the second half sloppy and uninspired, started scrapping for rebounds, converting from the line, getting lucky bounces, making big shots and holding Louisiana Monroe scoreless for more than four minutes. The result was an 11-1 run of their own, with King leaping up and tipping in Kevin Dorsey’s missed jumper for a momentous cap that ignited the arena.
“They gave us a good test,” said sophomore guard Nate Mason, who had 12 points, four assists and four rebounds. “I feel like we tended to panic sometimes [last year], and I didn’t want the team to panic at all this time. I felt like we did a good job of staying composed.”
It was an energy level missed for most of the first half, even as the Gophers shut down the Warhawks defensively.
Pitino experimented with a plethora of lineups on the Gophers’ final home game before they travel to a three-game tournament in Puerto Rico this week. Perhaps as a result, the Gophers offense never quite found its groove. One game after drilling 12 three-pointers, Minnesota sank only three of 22 attempts from behind the arc.
Still, the Gophers had the advantage over a Warhawks team that couldn’t find the basket for most of the half, shooting only 25.8 percent from the floor. As a result, the home team led 38-25 at the break.
“It was as great test for us at home,” King said. “I’m glad we came out with such confidence, and it’s going to give us a baseline for where we’re at and how well we have to play in Puerto Rico.”