It started as a day of disappointment for the Gophers.
Five-star 2014 recruit Reid Travis committed to Stanford and Mo Walker’s six-game suspension was announced.
But when the Gophers took the floor, all of that faded away
Minnesota used a tenacious defensive attack and an inspired effort on the glass from Elliott Eliason en route to a 81-62 season-opening win over Lehigh.
Eliason decided to rebound for two on Friday night with his partner in crime Walker out.
He finished with 11 points and 17 boards. It was the first double-double of his career
“You just come in there and do what you can and things sometimes go your way,” Eliason said. “Tonight was a good thing. I was able to get a lot of rebounds and get some points on the board.”
Minnesota’s defense stymied the Mountain Hawks -- particularly in the first half.
The Gophers held Lehigh to 18 points on 23 percent shooting through 20 minutes. Minnesota accrued 11 steals on the night.
“I thought our defense in the first half was phenomenal,” Pitino said. “We did a good job of taking them out of what they wanted to do.”
Eliason had plenty of aid in the scoring department. Junior transfer Joey King had 20 points to lead the team, while junior guard Andre Hollins followed closely behind with 18 points on 5-for-13 shooting.
Pitino said Hollins did a great job getting to the rim and drawing fouls. He attempted seven free throws on the night.”
“I told him ‘the time to be passive, that’s for last year,’” Pitino said. “He’s a really efficient basketball player ... I think he’s a really, really good player.”
Hollins and the entire offense benefitted from the playmaking ability of junior guard DeAndre Mathieu. Mathieu drove and kicked to teammates throughout the night and finished with nine assists to go along with two points.”
“[My teammates] make it easy when they’re scoring,” he said. “It’s a fun game when you’re passing. I didn’t really have to score much, because everybody else really gets theres.”
The Gophers won the rebounding battle 38-35, but it continues to be a point of emphasis.
“We’re small right now, so we’ve got to continue to combat that,” Pitino said.
The win was Pitino’s first official victory as Gophers head coach since taking the job in April.
“I told the guys this is a long, long journey,” Pitino said. “One game down and many, many more go to.”
The first of those many comes on Tuesday night against Montana.
The Gophers wouldn’t give any specific reason for Walker’s suspension -- only to say he “violated University policy,” but there seemed to be plenty of support for him throughout the team.
“We love the kid and we want him back,” Eliason said. “I know he’s making himself better.”
His six-game suspension should expire in time for Walker to return to the lineup in time for the Gophers second game of the Maui Invitational in late November -- one game after Minnesota’s battle with Syracuse on Nov. 25
“We support Mo, we love Mo,” Pitino said. “We can’t wait to get him back in Maui, he’s going to be a big help to our basketball team.”