Mathieu, Minnesota pull away from WCarolina, 84-64
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) DeAndre Mathieu was not having a happy birthday in the first half. Minnesota was hardly in control of this game against Western Carolina.
Well, the Gophers got it together. Getting yelled at in the locker room by coach Richard Pitino was a wakeup call. Mathieu gave them an even bigger jolt.
Mathieu had 16 points and six assists, one of five Gophers who scored in double digits, to help Minnesota pull away from Western Carolina after a sluggish start for an 84-64 victory over the Catamounts Friday night.
Starting a stretch of six straight home games sandwiched around final exams, the Gophers (6-2) exhibited a lack of effort and energy early.
''I wasn't showing leadership. I was just frustrated that the game was so close,'' said Mathieu, who turned 22.
Pitino put it simply to his senior point guard.
''If you looked over at the sidelines and I had the body language that you had, you wouldn't feel real confident,'' Pitino said. ''Well, we're all looking to you. Show us something.''
That he did, with 10 points after halftime when Minnesota led only 39-38. Carlos Morris finished with 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting, and Andre Hollins added 15 points. The Gophers were outrebounded 34-26, but they scored 29 points off 24 turnovers.
The Gophers finally found a groove toward the midpoint of the second half, forcing the Catamounts into some errant passes and air balls that caught the attention of the students for future taunting. Joey King finished a fast break with a dunk, and Hollins followed that with a layup in transition. Morris and Mason swished back-to-back 3-pointers.
Then with 10:33 left, Mathieu used a double pump to protect the ball on a drive to the basket and drew a foul on Justin Browning as he flipped one in off the glass. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound Mathieu flexed his arms to the crowd and went to the line for the free throw that gave the Gophers a 59-49 edge.
''I guess fatigue got to us a little bit. They're a pretty good ballclub and we're still, like, just learning how we are,'' said James Sinclair, who had 13 points but missed five of his six field goal attempts in the second half.
Mike Brown had 21 points on 4-for-6 shooting from 3-point range for Western Carolina (3-6), which grabbed 17 of the first 21 misses.
Pitino wasn't pleased.
''Playing hard is not something he should have to stress to us. That should be an expectation,'' said King, who had 13 points.
The message at the intermission was clear.
''This is your livelihood as players. It's mine as a coach. How could you waste any minute of the game? I thought they were much better in the second half,'' Pitino said.
The Catamounts have played only one home game so far this season on their campus in Cullowhee, North Carolina. This trip to Minnesota their third of four against power-conference foes. They opened with losses to Mississippi State and Alabama.
So they certainly weren't intimidated, whether they were driving along the baseline for layups, putting back their own rebounds or stepping behind the arc. But the edge didn't last. The Gophers were fired up.
''They played much, much better in the second half. They put themselves in a position to really control the game,'' Catamounts coach Larry Hunter said.
Hunter, in his 10th season with the program, lost four of his top six players from the 2013-14 squad. This is his 35th year as a head coach, much longer than Gophers coach Richard Pitino (32) has been alive.
Western Carolina had two previous losses to Minnesota, in 1993 and 1997, with no prior wins against Big Ten teams at the time of the game. The Catamounts won at Nebraska in 1999, when the Huskers were in the Big 12. They lost to Purdue in 1996, their only NCAA tournament appearance.
Minnesota is down to one true small forward in Morris, a 6-foot-5 junior college transfer. In his first season at this level of competition, he has been predictably up and down, prone to turnovers and jump-shot settling but capable of scoring from anywhere on the court and being a disruption on defense.
''We don't have a year with him. He's got to figure it out right now,'' Pitino said.
Western Carolina plays at Vanderbilt on Dec. 16.
Minnesota hosts North Dakota on Monday.