Minnesota rolls past Western Kentucky in home opener

The Gophers won their home opener Tuesday night at Williams Arena.

Jack Satzinger

After Louisville thoroughly outplayed them last week in Puerto Rico, the Gophers rebounded from their season-opening loss with a 76-54 victory over Western Kentucky on Tuesday night at Williams Arena.

The Gophers jumped out to a 22-6 lead midway through the first half behind an energetic full-court press and didn’t look back. The Hilltoppers turned the ball over 25 times in all.

“That was probably our best defensive performance since I’ve been here,” head coach Richard Pitino said. “We imposed our will, which I love.”

The Gophers’ loss to the Cardinals last week showed them how much more effort they need to put into defense. Senior guard DeAndre Mathieu said Louisville head coach Rick Pitino gave them advice after the contest.

“He told us we needed to establish our identity. His guards were really, really aggressive on defense, and we felt we kind of backed down from them a little bit,” he said.

Mathieu had a subpar season opener, but he looked like his normal self on Tuesday, slashing to the rim for 11 points and finding his teammates for a game-high six assists.

But Mathieu said the statistic he was most proud of was his five steals.

Minnesota’s offense ran inside-out from the opening tip. Forward Joey King hit two 3-pointers en route to 10 points and found center Mo Walker down low for multiple baskets. Walker led Minnesota in scoring with 14 points.

“I got a lot of touches early on,” Walker said. “I tried to stay aggressive. … I think in the long run it really paid off. It wore their bigs down.”

It also created more space on the perimeter for Minnesota’s guards to shoot. After going the whole first half without scoring, Andre Hollins hit a corner 3-pointer with about six minutes left in the game.

But his head coach was happier with his defense.

“He didn’t care about his points,” Pitino said of Hollins.

Hollins and Mathieu were a potent defensive backcourt, constantly pressuring the ball and forcing turnovers. Hollins, who had five points and three rebounds, came away with four steals. Mathieu said the Gophers worked more on ball pressure in practice, and it showed.

But perhaps the biggest difference between last week’s struggle against Louisville and Tuesday night’s rout of Western Kentucky was Mathieu’s all-around energy.

“He set the tone for us. We go when he goes,” guard Nate Mason said. “He made everybody else play better.”

Mason was a bright spot in Puerto Rico, and Tuesday was no different. He again scored 10 points, while only missing one shot and pressuring the Hilltoppers’ guards.

With Mathieu, Hollins and Mason flying around up top, the Gophers looked like a different team on Tuesday. Both King and Mason reiterated Pitino’s sentiments, saying Minnesota needs to impose its will.

That’s what they did Tuesday, and it looks like that’s what Pitino wants the rest of the way.

“We’ve got to get to having an identity as a team,” Pitino said. “This is the way we want to play.”