Gophers play fast in Pitino’s unofficial coaching debut

Minnesota looked impressive in the first half, but fell off after halftime.

Minnesota guard DeAndre Mathieu looks for an open pass during the home game against Cardinal Stritch University on Friday.

Lisa Persson

Minnesota guard DeAndre Mathieu looks for an open pass during the home game against Cardinal Stritch University on Friday.

Jace Frederick

The Gophers’ offense was fast, fluid and efficient in the first half of their season-opening 79-57 exhibition win over Cardinal Stritch on Friday night.

Minnesota’s defense forced numerous turnovers that led to easy buckets in head coach Richard Pitino’s unofficial debut.

The Gophers dominated the first half but were outscored 38-33 after the break.

Minnesota battles Concordia-St. Paul in its final exhibition Monday night and faces Lehigh in its true season opener on Friday.

“We’ve got a lot of things to work on,” senior guard Austin Hollins said after Friday’s win. “I think we did a good job tonight, but we’re going to keep on improving.”

The Gophers’ fast start was sparked by a relentless full-court press. They forced 17 turnovers on the night.

“I liked our press early better than late,” Pitino said. “I thought we did some good things on defense, [and] 11 steals is pretty good.”

Sophomore forward Joey King was a key cog in the Gophers’ press and used his length to make it tough for opposing guards to find open passing lanes.

That defense sparked various chances in transition, including a ferocious one-handed slam from Hollins early in the first half. He added a second impressive flush in the half court in the second half and led the team with 17 points.

“I just try to bring energy,” he said after the game.

Minnesota also took care of the ball Friday, something it struggled to do last season. Pitino said the Gophers’ 23 assists, compared to just seven turnovers, was a positive.

Junior guard DeAndre Mathieu was efficient leading the break. He finished with seven points and nine assists and didn’t turn the ball over in 21 minutes.

“He’s an extremely fast guard, and he fits the way that we want to play,” Pitino said.

The Gophers’ intensity dipped in the final 20 minutes, but junior guard Andre Hollins said he didn’t think fatigue was a factor.

No Gophers player played more than 24 minutes Friday.

“We’ve got to keep our focus and intensity up the entire game,” Andre Hollins said. “We want to be one of the hardest-working teams in America.”

That drop in intensity showed as Minnesota was outrebounded 40-34.

“We’ve got to work on that,” redshirt junior center Elliott Eliason said. “We need to be a better rebounding team if we’re going to compete.”

The Gophers also shot a meager 11-for-30 from the free throw line, but Pitino wasn’t concerned with the struggles from the charity stripe.

“We’re a good free-throw shooting team,” he said. “We’re a good shooting team. That’s why you play these exhibition games — to get the nerves out. That’s probably one of the least of my concerns, to be honest.”

Halvorsen returns to the Barn

Concordia-St. Paul senior forward Chris Halvorsen will return to a familiar stomping ground Monday when his Golden Bears visit the Barn.

Halvorsen served as a Gophers walk-on during the past two seasons, playing in 16 games for Minnesota.

“It’s going to be interesting going up against those guys,” he said. “It’ll be kind of like going up against your brothers in the backyard.”

Halvorsen will likely be matched up against his former roommate Oto Osenieks in the post.

Halvorsen said he’s still close with some of the Gophers players, and he said there’s been some playful banter in the weeks leading up to the team.

Halvorsen graduated from Minnesota with a biomedical engineering degree and is starting his MBA at Concordia. He said his decision to transfer to Concordia in the offseason was based on playing time.

“I wanted to get a little bit more of a chance to play,” he said. “I never really got the chance [with the Gophers]. I felt like I wanted to play one more year.”