Division II Chaminade guard Lee Bailey said a potential upset was in the back of the Silverswords minds as they led the Gophers by nine points in the second half on Wednesday.
The idea was placed directly in front of everyone watching. Chaminade was outplaying its Big Ten opponent.
For the Gophers, it was almost disastrous. Almost.
But the Gophers finished the game on a 25-4 run to defeat the Silverswords 83-68 in their final bout of the Maui Invitational on Wednesday.
“The guys in the huddle, the team came together, it was like we've got to make a run now. It's now or never,” Gophers junior guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “If they would have gotten a bigger lead, it would have probably been over. We just decided to fight.”
Mathieu’s defense lead the comeback surge. His full-court pressure created havoc for Chaminade all afternoon. The Silverswords turned the ball over 20 times.
“When he started to turn up the heat, everybody else fed off of him,” Gophers head coach Richard Pitino said. “He saved us. He was tremendous.”
With junior guard Andre Hollins dealing with foul trouble for most of the game and senior guard Austin Hollins struggling from the field — he shot just 3 for 11, but did make some big play defensively — others had to step up.
“The others” were Mathieu, senior guard Malik Smith and junior center Mo Walker.
Mathieu led the team with 17 points five assists and five rebounds. Walker created a presence for the Gophers down low as he imposed his will on the smaller Chaminade and finished with 10 points and seven rebounds in just his second game back from a six-game suspension to open the season.
Smith capped off a strong tournament performance. He scored 16 points on the afternoon, including an 8 for 10 showing at the charity stripe. He totaled 47 points over the three-game invitational.
After Minnesota jumped out to a 14-3 lead in the game’s early minutes, Chaminade went out a 39-23 run to take a five-point lead into the locker room.
Smith said it was hard to play at 9:30 a.m. local time for the second consecutive day.
“it really felt early today,” he said. “We were playing a Division II team that had nothing to lose … We came out slow.”
Yet despite the deficit for much of the game, despite the poor shooting — the Gophers shot 38.2 percent from the field — and despite finishing 38-38 in the rebounding battle with a smaller Division II foe, Pitino said Wednesday was the most proud he’d been of his team this season.
“We were battling so many obstacles … travel, we were tired, and it's just the time change. It was all very, very difficult,” Pitino said. “I am very much proud of these guys. They were very gritty and they toughed it out today.”
The win was the Gophers first and final victory in Maui. They suffered losses to No. 8 Syracuse and Arkansas earlier in the week.
“The biggest thing is it gave us a little bit of confidence back,” Smith said of the win. “After losing two games, your confidence starts to leave you a little bit. After today's win, we got a little bit of that back.”
Things don’t get much easier for Minnesota moving forward. The Gophers battle Florida State at home on Tuesday — a tough matchup in their first contest back in the central timezone.
“We're going to get out of [Maui] right away,” Pitino said. “We'll get them off tomorrow, and we've got to get the rust out of them Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday. Get their body back to normal time zone, so that is the biggest thing.”