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Four days after being punished by Louisville in an airport hangar on national TV, the Gophers were back in Williams Arena for their season home opener, facing Western Kentucky in what was officially the opening round of the NIT Season Tip-Off. Unlike the hangar slop fest, the Gophers were much more in control and confident. And behind a strong all-around performance by Deandre Mathieu and defensive domination, the Gophers took down the Hilltoppers with ease 76-54.

Defensively, it was night and day for the Gophers, who ran rampant when they didn’t have the ball. The team combined for 17 steals and 42 deflections, never giving WKU an opportunity to get into a flow early and minimizing any chance they had to hang with Minnesota up and down the court. By halftime, the game was largely out of reach for the Hilltoppers and the rout was on.

The Gophers came out in a full-court press and ran it much of the game, forcing WKU into disarray early and causing an impressive 25 turnovers. Never looking comfortable, the Hilltoppers often settled for contested shots and hit only 32% of their attempts.

Mathieu stuffed the stat sheet as the Gophers imposed their will on both ends of the court. The senior guard racked up 11 point, 6 assists, 5 steals and 5 rebounds. Perhaps more importantly, he committed only one turnover and and was called for only two fouls.

In fact, the Gophers only committed 11 turnovers the entire game and had only three at halftime. They applied a pressure-filled defense but, unlike the game against Louisville where they had 19 fouls by halftime, they minimized the dumb fouls and ticky-tack mistakes. Where they had 31 fouls in Puerto Rico, they committed only 17 on Tuesday night.

Mo Walker was a beast down low, scoring 14 points on 5-9 shooting to mark his second double-digit scoring affair in as many games. He nabbed only two rebounds though, while committing four fouls. Nate Mason proved to be a spark off the bench again, hitting back-to-back threes early on to push the Gopher lead and finishing with 10 points on 4-5 shooting.

Overall, it was great to see the Gophers bounce back after a tough loss to a good team in Puerto Rico. It was obvious that they learned from playing against such good talent and they simply ran circles around WKU on both ends of the floor. Most important, it was nice to see the team respond to the mistakes they made in game one, namely fewer turnovers and fouls. And seeing Mathieu do what he does best, playing fast and with purpose, was great to see as well.

The Gophers face D-II schedule filler Franklin Pierce on Thursday for the second leg of the preliminary  round of the NIT Season Tip-Off.

Notes/Thoughts:

  • While Andre Hollins scored only 5 points, he was never really needed in the game that was handled by everyone else. In essence, the team didn’t need him to score, so he didn’t even take a second shot until the second half. Instead, he dished out assists (4) and racked up steals (4). We’ll take it.
  • Elliott Eliason was a little more relevant tonight, scoring 7 points and at least trying to put the ball in the hoop.
  • Squirrel Morris definitely has some Malik Smith in him. The guy loves to shoot in situations that don’t always warrant an attempt.
  • Once again, though, the team was horrific from the free throw line, going 10-19 for a dismal 53%.