After having Monday off, Minnesota (4-0) took on Santa Clara (0-4) Tuesday night in what figured to be the easiest of the three games for the Gophers at the Vancouver Invitational. Instead, the two teams engaged in a competitive battle that went down to the final minutes.
Minnesota overcame a dismal offensive performance in the first half in which they shot 12-38 (.316) from the field to capture a 80-66 victory. Santa Clara led by as many as seven before the Gophers closed out the first half on a 14-3 run, thanks largely to the sharp-shooting of freshman Gabe Kalscheur.
The freshman carried the load offensively most of the night for Minnesota. He finished with 25 points to lead the team on 9-16 (.563) shooting including seven 3-pointers. Behind him, seniors Dupree McBrayer and Jordan Murphy each had 15 points. Murphy continued his impressive season with six assists and 17 rebounds, leading the team in both categories.
"That's what good players do," Pitino said of Murphy on the Gopher Radio Network after the game. "He burnt them a couple times and he got some good things low."
Even though the Gophers came into the game as heavy favorites against a winless Santa Clara team, the Broncos stuck around. After Minnesota extended their lead to eight points early in second half, Santa Clara fought back.
Momentum seemed to shift on a sequence where junior Amir Coffey turned the ball over on a three-on-one fast break opportunity that immediately led to a Santa Clara three, tying the game at 46 with 11:33 to play.
"You're not going to be really good right now," Pitino told the Gopher Radio Network. "Nobody's going to be really good. And when you have three freshman on the court a lot of the time, that's going to happen — you're going to make some mistakes."
Pitino took a timeout after Santa Clara tied the game. Coffey hit two free throws on the next possession and the Gophers never relinquished the lead. The game remained competitive until with 3:14 left, Kalscheur drew a charge on Santa Clara's Trey Wertz, who picked up his fifth foul and became the third Bronco to foul out. Santa Clara head coach and good friend of Pitino, Herb Sendek, was then ejected after picking up consecutive technical fouls for arguing with officials.
Minnesota used the ensuing technical free throws to extend their lead to 71-57, essentially sealing the game.
"Really, really good win." Pitino told the Gopher Radio Network. "I have so much respect for coach Sendek. Those guys are going to fight and they did, so I'm proud of our guys."
A bit of Gopher history was made in the second half as Murphy pulled down his 698th career rebound to pass Mychal Thompson for the most in program history.
The team will be back in action tomorrow night as they close out the Vancouver Showcase with their toughest test of the season so far. They will take on Washington at 5:30 p.m.
"Good opportunity for us," Pitino told the Gopher Radio Network. "Our schedule is really tough. Looking at Washington, a lot of people have them picked to win the Pac-12. We have to get some rest, find out a way to attack their zone and get our confidence going offensively."