CHICAGO – DeAndre Mathieu pulled off his busted sneakers and smiled.
“Another opportunity at life,” he said. “It’s life or death right now. It definitely is.”
A breakneck finish minutes earlier gave the 11th-seeded Gophers an 80-68 victory over last-place Rutgers on the first day of the Big Ten basketball tournament.
But after taking until late in the second half to find the attack-the-basket mentality that shredded Mathieu’s shoes and led to the two big runs that ultimately did in the 14th-seeded Scarlet Knights — losers of 14 straight coming into the tournament — the Gophers still have plenty to prove.
In line with its streaky play all season, Minnesota allowed a double-digit advantage to slip to four with 3:40 left but outscored its opponent 13-5 the rest of the way.
Rick Pitino, the father of Gophers coach Richard Pitino and the coach at Louisville,flew in for the game ahead of the Cardinals’ 2 p.m. ET game vs. North Carolina in the ACC tournament on Thursday and encouraged Minnesota’s seniors to rise to the occasion. But while Mo Walker (10 points, 10 rebounds) had his second consecutive double-double, the Gophers notched the victory on the backs of their support personnel.
Junior power forward Joey King led Minnesota (18-14) with 20 points and six three-pointers, and freshman guard Nate Mason added 15 points on a night in which Andre Hollins was held scoreless. The senior guard hasn’t scored a basket for 66 consecutive minutes, going back to the first half of Sunday’s loss to Penn State in the regular-season finale.
“My shot is not falling,” Hollins said. “I’ve just got to try to do other things.”
He’ll have plenty of opportunities on Thursday, when the Gophers face sixth-seeded Ohio State at United Center. Big Ten Freshman of the Year D’Angelo Russell scored 25 first-half points on Hollins in early January — a 74-72 Minnesota loss in overtime at Williams Arena in the teams’ only regular-season meeting.
“He’s a smooth player coming off of screens,” Hollins said. “I helped off of him a little bit too much, and he knocked them down.”
Wednesday, no one outside of King was knocking anything down in a sluggish first half. Minnesota led 30-27 at the break despite turning the ball over eight times and allowing Rutgers — which made just one of seven shots from the free-throw line — to dominate the offensive boards 10-5.
Kadeem Jack recorded 18 points and five rebounds for Rutgers (10-22), and Myles Mack and Bishop Daniels contributed 15 points apiece.
The Gophers first broke out of the early offensive slopfest with a 14-4 run that put them up 54-42 with 11:16 to go. The spurt included three three-pointers by King.
King has scored 39 points and hit 10 three-pointers in the past two games, big production from a player who had landed in the starting lineup mostly because of circumstance and lack of depth.
Wednesday, he proved to be a critical cog in a second half that had the Gophers rolling again, and smiling in the locker room, at least for one more night.
“I’ve never wavered from starting him,” Pitino said of King.
“A lot of that has to do with there’s nobody else to start, but I haven’t.”