MINNEAPOLIS — Sure, it was just an exhibition game, but Richard Pitino’s new style brought a breath of fresh air Friday to Williams Arena in the Gophers’ preseason opener against Cardinal Stritch.
Minnesota pressed early and often, forcing turnovers that resulted in points. The Gophers looked to run in transition, scored on fast-break layups and took good care of the basketball. Pitino’s trademark style resulted in a 79-57 win for Minnesota in his first game as the Gophers’ head coach.
As fun as it was for fans to watch the new-look Gophers, it was just as enjoyable for the players to finally hit the court and play against an actual opponent.
“It was a lot of fun. I think guys are getting the hang of it,” said senior Austin Hollins, who scored a team-high 17 points in the win. “It was nice to be back on the court for the first time against someone other than ourselves. We’re just going to learn from this game, come back and have a strong practice and keep on improving.”
From the opening tip, Minnesota set the tone by scoring quickly on a transition layup by newcomer Deandre Mathieu. Hollins later picked up one of the Gophers’ 11 steals and finished at the other end with a thunderous dunk — one of two big dunks for the senior — to put Minnesota up 10-2.
The Gophers wound up with 13 points off turnovers in the first half and eight fast break points to run away with a 46-19 halftime lead. Not surprisingly, it was Andre Hollins (nine points) and Austin Hollins (eight points, four steals) leading the way for Minnesota in the energetic first half.
Perhaps the Gophers were too content with the big halftime lead as they admittedly let off the gas in the second half. Cardinal Stritch actually outscored Minnesota 38-33 in the second half, thanks to 16 points after halftime from guard Derek Semenas, who finished with a game-high 29 points.
Minnesota was outrebounded by the Wolves in the second half, a sign that the Gophers’ energy after halftime didn’t match the intensity of the first half.
“A very good first half. Very good. I thought we came out with a lot of energy,” Pitino said. “And then the second half, we just took our foot off the gas a little bit more than we should have. You’ve got to give credit to them, too. They were really good in the second half.”
Despite the sloppy second half, there were plenty of positives for Minnesota in Pitino’s first game, albeit an exhibition. Minnesota turned the ball over just seven times while racking up 23 assists — including nine by the speedy Mathieu, a transfer from Central Arizona College. And even though the Gophers played a full-court press for the majority of the game, Minnesota’s players avoided foul trouble and finished the game with only 11 personal fouls.
There were also some things that Pitino was not so pleased with. His team was outrebounded by six and had just seven offensive rebounds. And Minnesota was just 11-of-30 from the free throw line, something the players attributed to nerves. While the free throw percentage stood out, Pitino didn’t sound concerned about his team’s woes from the charity stripe.
All in all, Pitino’s team gave fans a glimpse Friday into what to expect during the 2013-14 season. The Gophers may not have been picked by college basketball pundits to win the Big Ten by any means, but Pitino’s brand of basketball should definitely be a welcomed change.
“We want to make them uncomfortable as we can,” said Andre Hollins, who scored 11 points and added three assists. “They got uncomfortable we started turning them over, making shots, playing fast. We got a little sloppy in the second half, so that’s one thing we’re going to have to focus on. This was a good test drive before the real thing starts.”
Friday’s exhibition marked the first time Pitino had the chance to coach a Gophers team in a game since he took the job after spending one year at Florida International. When Pitino was announced before Friday’s game, he received a nice ovation from those on hand, who warmly welcomed the young coach to Minnesota.
Of course, there were some things Minnesota’s 31-year-old head coach had to adjust to in his first game at Williams Arena — namely, the raised court.
“That stool, it was like everywhere I turned it was in my way. It was following me,” Pitino said. “It’s such a great home court advantage. Just to see the passion from the fans, that’s really why I think this job is very special, very unique. There’s a lot of schools out there that would die to get the crowd that we got tonight for an exhibition game.”