SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – With hundreds of its fans packed into the sold-out, 3,250-seat Sanford Pentagon arena, it was definitely a home away from home for the Gophers men’s basketball team on Saturday night against Vanderbilt.
Minnesota left the floor with resounding cheers after overcoming a 12-point first-half deficit and coming back from down six points late in the second half in a 56-52 victory.
“We found a way to win,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “I’m not sure we would’ve done that last year.”
The Gophers faithful usually prepared for disappointment a year ago when their team fell behind in the last several minutes. Pitino was 0-21 last season when trailing with five minutes left in the game.
But newcomers like Amir Coffey and Reggie Lynch have shown why this is a much different team this year.
Coffey, who had no baskets in the first half, caught an alley-oop pass from Dupree McBrayer in transition for a dunk to ignite the crowd and make a once six-point deficit a one-possession game with just under five minutes remaining.
Lynch followed with two of his six blocks, including one on Vanderbilt’s 7-footer, Luke Kornet. Coffey later made two straight buckets, including a running layup to give his team a 54-52 lead with 59 second left.
Coffey finished with six of his nine points in the last 4:53. Jordan Murphy led Minnesota (7-1) with 10 of his 16 points in the second half, to go with 14 rebounds.
“He had great confidence and poise, which you don’t normally see for a freshman,” Pitino said of Coffey. “He didn’t play great, but he made the plays when we needed him to.”
Minnesota couldn’t make enough plays down the stretch last season on several occasions, including in a 62-60 loss to Oklahoma State in Sioux Falls. It almost seemed like deja vu when Murphy missed his fourth straight free throw before Vanderbilt used a 10-0 run to take the lead late in the second half.
Riley LaChance’s jumper capped an 18-5 run and put the Commodores ahead 50-44 with 6:02 remaining. But Minnesota answered with six straight points, including a hook shot from Lynch to tie it 50-50.
“Those are two players who want to win,” Murphy said of Coffey and Lynch. “They are two players that make really good winning plays. Having their presence this year compared to last year is a huge difference. Reggie is a load in the post, can definitely block shots. And Amir can score and pass.”
The Gophers, who lost their first game of the season Monday at Florida State, missed their first seven shots of the game and trailed 9-0 before their first field goal Saturday.
A jumper from Matthew Fisher-Davis gave Vanderbilt (4-4) a 14-2 lead near the 14-minute mark of the first half, but Minnesota’s bench sparked the rally.
Bakary Konate, Eric Curry and Akeem Springs combined for 10 points during an 18-3 run to give the Gophers a three-point advantage.
The Commodores, who entered Saturday with losses to Marquette, Bucknell and Butler, still took a 25-24 lead into halftime after holding their Big Ten opponent to 33 percent shooting.
In the second half, Nate Mason hit back-to-back three-pointers to spark a 12-0 run to put Minnesota ahead by its largest margin at 39-27. But the Gophers needed to rely on their defense after blowing their big lead.
Vanderbilt was held to just 28 percent shooting in the second half, including 3-for-13 from three-point range.
“We dedicated ourselves to defense this year,” Mason said. “You can see it. Defensive rebounding really gave us this win today. I felt like we controlled the glass and played great defense down the stretch.”