DES MOINES, IOWA — Richard Pitino took exception to the narrative that he isn’t able to keep top players from in-state during his press conference on Tuesday to preview the Gophers’ first-round game against Louisville in the NCAA tournament.
On Thursday afternoon at Wells Fargo Arena, a national audience got to see that Pitino wasn’t simply being defensive. Junior guard Amir Coffey, who is from Hopkins and is the Gophers’ best player, finished with 18 points and six rebounds. Freshman center Daniel Oturu, a standout freshman center from Cretin-Derham Hall, had 13 points and six rebounds.
Then there was the star of the game in the Gophers’ 86-76 victory over the Cardinals. Freshman guard Gabe Kalscheur, who attended DeLaSalle High School and is from Edina, made 8-of-14 shots from the field, including 5-of-11 from three-point range, and finished with 24 points and eight rebounds. Sixteen of Kalscheur’s points came in the second half as the Gophers extended their lead to 19 points at one point en route to their first NCAA tournament victory since 2013 in Tubby Smith’s final season.
The Gophers will face Michigan State on Saturday in Des Moines in the second round. The second-seeded Spartans got a scare from 15th-seeded Bradley before pulling away for a 76-65 victory.
The Gophers, who also got 18 points from Jordan Murphy on Thursday, entered the tournament making just over five three-pointers per game in slightly more than 16 attempts. In a 76-49 loss to Michigan last Saturday in the Big Ten tournament, the Gophers went 2-of-12 from deep.
That meant Kalscheur, the Gophers’ only consistent threat from the outside, had to have a big day and he did. The 10th-seeded Gophers made 11-of-27 three-pointers; Louisville, the seventh seed, was 9-of-26. The Gophers shot 50 percent from the field to go along with 40.7 percent from three-point range. The Cardinals were 26-of-59 from the field (44.1 percent) and 34.6 percent from three.
Kalscheur, though, didn’t just score from long range. He also had a few driving layups, including a second half basket that boosted the Gophers lead to 14 points. He also had hit three free throws earlier in the half after getting fouled.
“He drove the ball a couple of times in crucial moments, got that and-one, knocked down crucial free throws,” Pitino said. “He had eight rebounds. That’s remarkable. Then, obviously, he’s a terrific three-point shooter. He’s got a beautiful stroke. He’s one of those guys, he deserves success every single day. It does not matter what you do, that guy is punching the clock. You could even tell him, ‘Gabe, take today off,’ and he’s going to sneak into the gym. He’s a throwback with that, so he deserves success.”
Asked about that work ethic, and how nice it is to see all that work pay off in the NCAA tournament, Kalscheur said: “It’s nice. Basketball is a tricky game. You’re going to have ups-and-downs, you’re going have rough nights and good times, too. That’s the process of it. Just getting that good gratification is nice. This is nice that I have this, but we’re going to have to get onto the next game.”
The Gophers won the game despite not getting a point — or a shot for that matter — from their bench. Center Matz Stockman continued to be sidelined by a concussion and sophomore guard Isaiah Washington no longer gets on the floor unless the Gophers are hopelessly ahead or behind. But even with Murphy battling back spasms, Minnesota took control after starting the second half on a 12-5 run to take a 12-point lead with 16:06 left.
With a large contingent of Gophers fans having made the drive to Des Moines to cheer on their team, the arena got loud as Minnesota continued to hit threes. When Kalscheur hit his fourth three-pointer, he back pedaled and appeared to be strumming an air guitar.
“Did you do that?” Pitino said as he sat by Kalscheur at the postgame press conference. “Did you really do that? Act live you’ve been there before!”
As Kalscheur provided an answer, Pitino quickly rethought his stance.
“He can do whatever he wants if he hits threes,” Pitino said.
Pitino wouldn’t mind seeing more of Kalscheur’s air guitar skills on Saturday.