MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota’s star guard Andre Hollins was benched just nine seconds into Saturday’s game against New Orleans, a sight rarely — if ever — seen. Hollins didn’t know the play that was called, and a pass from DeAndre Mathieu intended for Hollins sailed out of bounds.
That was enough for first-year Gophers coach Richard Pitino to yank his leading scorer from the game, at least temporarily. The message was received by Hollins, who returned to score a team-high 18 points as Minnesota came away with an 80-65 win.
That early miscue served as a reminder that even against a team like the Privateers, the Gophers can’t let their guard down.
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“He said he can’t have lapses from a captain,” Hollins said. “Sometimes (against) the opponents that aren’t as good as we are, it’s hard to get up for it. It’s human nature. It’s easy to get up for Syracuse and Florida State. That’s what we have to try to block out and take the opportunity to get better, play in front of a home crowd, get everything flowing. We didn’t start out like that tonight.”
Minnesota jumped out to an early lead and led by as many as 21 in the first half after Joey King hit in the corner from downtown for three of his 10 points off the bench. That lead was still an 18-point edge at halftime as the Gophers entered the locker room up 41-23.
Playing at home against a team that it should have blown away, Minnesota instead let New Orleans hang around in the second half. That big halftime lead slowly dwindled. It was cut to 11 at the 8:53 mark on a layup by New Orleans guard Tevin Broyles. The Privateers later came to within eight points when Kevin Hill scored with 3:33 to play in the game.
The Gophers wound up getting outscored 42-39 in the second half. Luckily for Minnesota, its halftime lead was too big for New Orleans to overcome. But Pitino wasn’t pleased with his team’s complacency and lack of energy when things seemed out of reach.
“The biggest thing that I didn’t like, I thought we just didn’t play with a whole lot of confidence out there, a whole lot of energy,” said Pitino, who improved to 8-2 in his first 10 games at Minnesota. “We’ve worked too hard, and I do believe that we’ve earned the right to have a little confidence out there. I didn’t see that today.”
Minnesota’s game Saturday came several days after hosting a tough Florida State squad for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Gophers have also played some tough competition against Syracuse in the Maui Invitational and on the road against Richmond.
With the Big Ten schedule still nearly a month away, these nonconference games can become a mental grind for teams like Minnesota. The Gophers found that out the hard way Saturday.
“We didn’t really play the whole game through. We took our foot off the gas,” said center Mo Walker, who scored a career-high 11 points and had eight rebounds in the win. “They made a big run in the second half and got the game pretty close. We could lose on any given night if we don’t give it all for 40 minutes.”
The Gophers did get a balanced scoring attack in Saturday’s win, as six players scored in double-figures. Andre Hollins’ 18 points led the way, while Austin Hollins chipped in 13. Walker — who played extended minutes with center Elliott Eliason limited with an ankle injury — and point guard DeAndre Mathieu both had 11, and Oto Osenieks and King each scored 10 points in the victory.
Yet despite the 80-point effort, there were some things that Pitino and the Gophers know they need to shore up in their final few nonconference games. Saturday was a rarity in that Minnesota had more turnovers (16) than it did assists (15). The Gophers also let the Privateers connect on 4-of-6 shots from downtown in the second half, including back-to-back 3-pointers by Matt Derenbecker to trim Minnesota’s lead to 12 midway through the second half.
In reality, Saturday’s game should have never been as close as it got in the second half — a lesson that Pitino hammered home to his team.
“I wrote on the board before the game, ‘Humble and hungry.’ We’ve got to be humble and hungry,” Pitino said. “We can get beat by anybody but we could beat anybody. I really believe that. If you lay an egg energy-wise, toughness-wise, you can get beat.
“It was a wakeup call. You’ve got to learn from winning. That’s the biggest thing.”