You could argue that Thursday’s 59-52 win at No. 22 Wisconsin was the most important of sixth-year Gophers coach Richard Pitino’s career.
Pitino was 2-11 in true road games in the last two seasons before the first win in Madison since 2009, but he also hadn’t come away victorious in the Border Battle since a win against the Badgers at home in his first season in 2013-14.
Here are my takeaways from Thursday’s victory, which put Minnesota at 12-2 and 2-1 in the Big Ten:
Perimeter defense: The Gophers forced Wisconsin to shoot 5-for-22 from three-point range (22.7 percent) on Thursday. There weren’t many three-pointers uncontested all night. Minnesota’s length in the backcourt with 6-foot-8 Amir Coffey, 6-5 Dupree McBrayer and 6-4 Gabe Kalscheur made it tougher on Wisconsin’s shooters. Even Daniel Oturu and Jordan Murphy jumped out to contest jumpers. The effort on pressuring the ball and closing out was the best Richard Pitino has seen all season. The Badgers were second in the Big Ten at 39.1 percent from long distance, while D’Mitrik Trice was the conference leader and ranked eighth nationally at 50.7 percent from beyond the arc, but he was 2-for-7 Thursday. The Gophers held opponents to 33.1 percent shooting from three-point range (41-for-124) combined during their six straight victories. Dupree McBrayer, who scored 13 of the team’s last 15 points in the second half, had two of the biggest steals of the season so far to seal the upset in Madison.
Hot Coffey: It’s early, but Coffey has made his mark already on the Big Ten. After three games, he leads the conference in scoring with 24 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field, to go with 5.0 rpg, 3.3 apg and 1.0 spg. Coffey’s 15 straight points to end the first half Thursday was the turning point in the first win at Wisconsin since 2009, but it wasn’t the first time he took over a half in the Big Ten. In the U’s first Big Ten win this season on Dec. 5 against Nebraska, the Hopkins product had 18 of his career-high 32 points in the second half to help his team erase a 13-point deficit to the Cornhuskers. Coffey’s at his best when he’s playing downhill in transition or driving to the basket. But his passing ability for his size makes him one of the most difficult players to defend in the league. He might not be a traditional point guard. But in the last two seasons, the Gophers are 18-0 when Coffey has three assists or more in a game.
Bench support: Minnesota’s bench wasn’t a juggernaut offensively, but it still outscored its counterpart for Wisconsin 12-8 Thursday night. Graduate transfer Brock Stull’s consecutive three-pointers in the second half were critical expanding the lead from six to 12 points after the Badgers used a 9-0 run to get within striking distance. Stull had hit just two three-pointers in the previous nine games, but he had six points, two rebounds and a steal in a season-high 22 minutes at Wisconsin. Junior Michael Hurt scored just four points, but he backed down his defender for a score off the glass to answer when the Badgers cut it to six points again midway into the second half. Maybe the most underrated performance of the night was from big man Eric Curry, who played in his first Big Ten game since a loss at Wisconsin in 2017. Curry scored just one field goal, but he grabbed five rebounds in 22 minutes. He had a tough time like most defenders against Ethan Happ, but Curry made sure to snatch the board if Happ missed a shot. Limiting Wisconsin to two offensive rebounds was significant. Curry also had zero turnovers in the game.
Winning close games: Sometimes it’s not such a good thing when you play too many close games, especially against lower-level nonconference opponents you’re supposed to crush. But the Gophers have a favorable trend going this season against Power conference opponents. When it comes to games that are decided down the stretch, Minnesota is undefeated so far. That’s right. Pitino’s team is 7-0 this season in games with single-digit margins, including victories against Utah, Texas A&M, Washington, Oklahoma State, Nebraska and now Wisconsin by seven points or fewer. Whether it was Gabe Kalscheur’s last-second three-pointer against the Huskies to win the Vancouver Showcase, Murphy’s 25-point, 16-rebound effort vs. Oklahoma State or clutch plays from Coffey and McBrayer against Wisconsin, the Gophers have not crumbled under pressure when the game is tight in the last few minutes yet this season. Their two losses against Boston College and Ohio State on the road were blowouts. So the confidence built from pulling close games out might serve them well in the Big Ten moving forward if they can be competitive in the majority of league play.
Turnovers: Jordan Murphy and Daniel Oturu are arguably the best rebounding frontcourt in the Big Ten. They can really take over games on the offensive glass and also can make an impact by getting to the foul line. Definitely a work in progress for Murphy and Oturu is taking care of the ball. Minnesota’s starting big men combined for six of the team’s 14 turnovers Thursday at Wisconsin. Coffey committed five turnovers, but a couple came off the hands of teammates not ready for his bullet passes. Coffey was also trying a couple times to force the issue offensively, but the Gophers can accept that if he plays aggressively on a consistent basis. Minnesota is 12th in the Big Ten in turnover margin at minus-0.6.
Three-point shooting: The Gophers hit six three-pointers against the Badgers, including a pair from Coffey and Stull on Thursday night. Those long-range shots were clutch considering the final margin of victory was just seven points. Pitino knows he can’t count on outside shooting on a nightly basis, because the Gophers are the worst team in the Big Ten in three-pointers per game (5.4). In fact, Minnesota is even worse in league play with just 3.0 threes per contest. There really was only one legitimate threat from beyond the arc to begin the season, but freshman Gabe Kalscheur went from shooting 54.8 percent (23-for-42) in his first seven games to 17.6 percent (6-for-34) in his last seven games. Kalscheur made more threes (7-for-12) in a 25-point performance against Santa Clara on Nov. 20 than he has in the last seven games. Where will the outside shooting come from until Kalscheur finds his rhythm again? Stull is a prime candidate since he was one of the top shooters in the Horizon League for three seasons. The 6-4 senior guard is 8-for-12 from long distance as a Gopher.
Washington’s playing time: For the first time this season, sophomore guard Isaiah Washington didn’t see the court Thursday against Wisconsin. Pitino said there was nothing more behind Washington sitting than Stull being a better fit for the matchup against the Badgers. Still, Pitino also mentioned Stull was showing great effort in practice, which could be a sign Washington isn’t giving it his all behind the scenes. Body language has always been an issue for the playmaking New York native. After becoming the first Gopher to have consecutive double-digit assist games (combined 23 assists and three turnovers vs. North Florida and North Carolina A&T), Washington had six points on 3-for-8 shooting with two assists in 15 minutes off the bench vs. Mount St. Mary’s in his last game on Dec. 30. The Gophers are still likely going to need contributions from Washington in Big Ten play, but it’s uncertain how he will respond to being benched at Wisconsin. A good sign was Washington celebrating the rivalry win with his teammates in the locker room after the game.
Frustration fouls: The Gophers went to Hack-a-Happ to finish Thursday’s upset over Wisconsin (unlike when they let him score the game-tying basket to send it into overtime last year in a loss in Madison). But Murphy and Oturu were already in foul trouble from the outset, which included Murphy fouling out for the second time this season. The last call was questionable with him trying to wall up on his man, but leaving his feet just for a second to give the illusion he made contact. Close call, but the Gophers were fortunate McBrayer took over after Murphy was on the bench for the last 3:49. Minnesota’s opponents have been hacking Murphy all season – and it often takes a toll on the All-Big Ten forward physically and mentally down the stretch. On a couple shots in the first half, Murphy got slapped across the arm and hit in the face with no whistles. Allowing players to be physical in the post can be a good thing at times, especially when a 6-foot-7, 250-pound bruiser like Murphy likes to bang. But opposing big men are pushing, shoving and pounding Murphy to wear him down and make him frustrated. At times, it works to get him into foul trouble as well. That was the case during his five-point, five-foul performance against the Badgers. Officials need to really watch how teams are beating up the Big Ten’s leading rebounder, because you don’t want anyone to get hurt.