Gophers use scrappiness to score Richard Pitino’s first big win

MINNEAPOLIS — If Richard Pitino was looking for a big win early in his career at Minnesota, he got one Tuesday.

The Gophers overcame a size disadvantage against Florida State in a 71-61 win over the visiting Seminoles in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Pitino said Monday that this game would be the toughest for Minnesota so far this year, and his squad passed the test with its most impressive win yet.

“I’m really proud of the guys to have this type of effort,” Pitino said following the victory. “That’s a very good team. That, to me, is an NCAA tournament team. So to take care of business when you’re coming back from Maui with a lot of tough obstacles was big for our program.”

Minnesota hung with a Top 10 Syracuse team for the majority of the opener in the Maui Invitational and played well in stretches in a loss against Arkansas the following day. Even in their final game of the tournament against Chaminade, though, Minnesota didn’t put together a complete game in that victory.

The Gophers felt they left a lot on the court in Maui but were battle tested by playing three games in three days. Hosting an FSU team that lost a pair of close games to Top 15 teams — an overtime loss to No. 14 Michigan and a one-point loss to No. 15 Florida — wasn’t exactly the way they envisioned jumping back into things, but Minnesota withstood the test from the bigger Seminoles squad.

For a Gophers team that wasn’t given much of a chance to compete with the best of the Big Ten this year, Minnesota showed Tuesday that it can indeed hang with some quality teams.

“That was our first big win,” said senior Austin Hollins, who had 16 points and five rebounds Tuesday. “We played Syracuse tough but we lost the game. We’ve just got to keep playing hard and keep getting better. We don’t really worry about what they say about us, because that’s something we have to earn. We just go out there and try to play hard every night.”

Without much of an inside presence to combat Florida State’s size in the post, Minnesota instead relied on strong play from its guards — particularly Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins. The duo combined to score 37 of the Gophers’ points and made five of Minnesota’s seven 3-pointers.

Minnesota’s post players were relatively quiet offensively against the Seminoles’ bigs. Center Elliott Eliason had just one point and fouled out with 1:33 to play, while backup center Mo Walker had four points, five rebounds and five fouls in 17 minutes off the bench.

Yet the Gophers were able to turn Florida State over 17 times in Tuesday’s game, turning that into 26 points the other way. That was key, considering Minnesota shot just 34 percent from the floor.

Perhaps no transition basket fired up the Williams Arena crowd more than an alley oop from guard DeAndre Mathieu to Austin Hollins. Mathieu stole the ball from the Seminoles, dribbled behind his back to stay inbounds, and found Hollins cutting to the hoot for the slam. That play put Minnesota up 15 early in the second half as the Gophers held the lead the rest of the way.

“I think that got us going a little bit,” Hollins said. “We practice that play in practice, but I had confidence that he could make that pass.”

Mathieu also embodied the fearlessness of the Gophers when he challenged FSU’s 7-foot-3 center, Boris Bojanovsky, in the second half. The 5-foot-9 Mathieu scored a bucket over Bojanovsky to extend Minnesota’s lead to 66-60 with just 1:48 to play.

“He’s a gutsy player, gets to the lane and finishes over him,” Andre Hollins said of Mathieu. “You’re going to see a lot of that this year.”

With Tuesday’s win, Minnesota did its part in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Big Ten went just 2-4 in the first night of the event. On Monday, Pitino said he wasn’t particularly interested in how the conference stacked up against the ACC. He was more concerned with how his team fared against Florida State.

Earlier nonconference wins against the likes of Montana or Wofford didn’t do much to show where this program was at with its first-year head coach. A 10-point win against the Seminoles proves that this Gophers team may be a bit better than outsiders originally thought.

“We knew coming in that this was going to be a big win for us,” Mathieu said. “Coach always enforces when tournament time comes that this is going to be a tournament team. We watch ESPN; we see them play. Everybody talks about how good they are, how big they are. It’s a big win, our first big win. … It just feels good to get a quality win over a good team.”

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