There were less than 10 minutes left in the first half and the Gophers were tied at 14 in a game in which they desperately needed to build momentum.
Coach Richard Pitino went to his bench and summoned … walk-on Stephon Sharp?
Minnesota wound up losing that one, to Oklahoma State in Sioux Falls, 62-60, but the next game, Pitino – liking what he saw the last time around – looked to his top walk-on once again, this time with the Gophers leading by just three in the first half.
Afterward, the coach made it clear that the two short stints, Sharp’s first appearances since playing less than a minute against Louisiana Monroe, were no accident.
“I see Steph playing,” Pitino said after a 70-52 win over Chicago State that snapped a three-game losing streak. I see him getting in the rotation. I don’t really look at him like a walk-on. I think he brings value.”
Sharp, a true freshman from Bloomington, joined the Gophers this summer after graduating from Hopkins High School in 2014 and spending then spending a year at South Kent in Connecticut. The 6-3 guard likely could have gotten a scholarship at a smaller Division I school, but Pitino cited his desire to come home in his decision to walk on at Minnesota.
Sharp said he didn’t know what to expect coming into this season.
“Honestly, I was just looking for an opportunity to be a part of the team and work hard and if minutes presented themselves it would be great,” he said. “So it’s been very meaningful to me to be able to play.”
Pitino has lauded Sharp’s energy, size defensive rotations, team play, and willingness to do the little things. He says he’s watched Sharp slash to the rim in practice a lot, and Gophers fans saw that translate to a game when he converted an and-one against Oklahoma State.
The coach said Sharp is probably the best walk-on he’s worked with in his coaching career.
“He’s very active defensively,” Pitino said. “He gets hands on balls, he gets deflections, he had a nice drive to the basket. He’s a good player. When we got him we kind of thought … ‘OK, we’ve got a legit DI player.’”
Sharp said he thinks the trust from Pitino comes on the defensive end and in terms of team on team concepts – areas where he excelled in high school.
“I’m just looking to build off of that,” he said. “I [always] kind of took pride in doing the little things – boxing out, rebounding, help defense, stuff like that, and that always translates over to the next level, so it’s been really helpful for me.”