Gophers pass first round

The men’s basketball team beat Rutgers 80-68 on Wednesday, thanks to a surprising player.

Jack Satzinger

CHICAGO — Minnesota spent more than 20 minutes of play going back and forth with the worst team in its conference on Wednesday night.

Then the Gophers (18-14, 6-12 Big Ten) received a spark from an unlikely character — junior forward Joey King — running past Rutgers for a 80-68 victory in the first round of the Big Ten tournament to set up a Thursday night contest with Ohio State.

“[It’s] another opportunity at life,” senior guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “It’s life or death right now.”

After a Charles Buggs alley-oop to Bakary Konaté excited the few fans at the United Center, King hit a 3-pointer that stretched Minnesota’s lead to five points.

King then rattled off a few more 3-pointers for a 10-point advantage. He finished with a game-high 20 points less than a week after a 19-point effort against Penn State.

“The way I’ve been playing here recently, it’s what I came here to do,” King said. “All the coaching staff and my teammates have been giving me all the confidence in the world to just let it fly when I’m open.”

Bolstered by King’s 3-pointer barrage, Minnesota led the rest of the way. However, much like their season, finding a way to win wasn’t easy for the Gophers — even against an inferior opponent.

Kadeem Jack and Myles Mack combined for 33 points to keep Rutgers in the game. The Scarlet Knights (10-22, 2-16 Big Ten) trimmed Minnesota’s lead to four points with just more than three minutes remaining.

But sound defense from Mathieu, along with freshman Nate Mason’s sharpshooting, kept the victory intact.

“I just tried to come out and set the tone, push the pace and get my teammates the ball,” Mason said. “I felt like I did a pretty good job today.”

While Mathieu and Mason were vital down the stretch, senior guard Andre Hollins didn’t make much of an impact, scoring a puzzling zero points while going 0-for-5 from the floor.

“I wish I had the answer,” head coach Richard Pitino said after the game. “I don’t like that he’s not getting to the foul line.”

After the contest, Hollins said his shots are simply not falling. But Minnesota’s senior leader also agreed with his coach’s assessment and said attacking the basket might get him going in the next contest against the Buckeyes.

Pitino’s father, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, was in attendance. He spoke to the Gophers before the game and gave some advice to Hollins, specifically.

“Coach Pitino’s dad even told him today, ‘You can do more than just shoot the ball,’” said Mathieu, who compiled eight points, eight assists and three steals.

With leading scorer Hollins ineffective against a poor team, King surprisingly picked up the slack to keep Minnesota’s up-and-down season alive.

When the game’s outcome was decided, King checked out with about one minute remaining on the clock and waved to a small contingent of Gophers fans cheering behind Minnesota’s bench.

“It felt really good just to represent the home state well on a national stage,” King said. “I’m glad we could come out with a win today.”