MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Coach Richard Pitino loaded Minnesota’s early-season schedule to prepare the Gophers for playing in the Big Ten and to boost their tournament credentials.
Minnesota lost some of those tougher games but said it learned from them. A loss at Iowa on Dec. 9, as part of conference play, proved to be a particularly eye-opening experience.
Gabe Kalscheur scored 23 points, and Daniel Oturu added 21 points and a career-high 20 rebounds for Minnesota in an 89-62 win against Florida International on Saturday. Since losing 72-52 against the Hawkeyes, the Gophers have won three straight games, including wins against then-No. 3 Ohio State and on the road against Oklahoma State.
“The Iowa game woke us up,” Pitino said after beating FIU. “We cannot sleepwalk through any performance. Obviously, to beat two really, really good opponents and then a confident FIU team, we’re playing good basketball.”
Devon Andrews had 14 points to lead the Panthers in scoring after totaling just three points in the first half due to foul trouble. Osasumwen Osaghae, who started the game leading the nation in blocks, had 12 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks for FIU, which had its six-game winning streak snapped.
“We just didn’t play well," Panthers coach Jeremy Ballard said. “We fought well and I think we showed people what our heart and what our mettle is about. But we’re a much better team than how we played and we’ll play much better moving forward."
Kalscheur, who went scoreless on 0-for-10 shooting against Iowa, followed up his career-high 34 points against the Cowboys, by shooting 5 of 10 from beyond the 3-point line against the Panthers and also had five steals. Marcus Carr, who had 35 points against the Buckeyes, chipped in with 17 points for Minnesota.
Oturu posted his seventh double-double of the season and has scored at least 20 points in four of his past five games. He shot 8 of 12 from the field and is hitting 72.9% of his shots over the past five games.
“Playing with your effort level has to be at an all-time high every time you’re on the court,” Oturu said. “I think that’s what really happened. We didn’t come out with enough effort. We didn’t play hard enough versus Iowa and I think that was an eye-opener these last couple games of just playing hard no matter what.”
STAT OF THE NIGHT
The Gophers were 29 of 30 from the free-throw line against FIU. They entered the game hitting 66.1% of their free throws as a team.
“I do think free-throw shooting cost us some games early, I really do,” Pitino said. “I don’t know if we’re a 29-for-30 team, but we have the same routine every practice for the last eight years I’ve been a head coach. We’re clearly better than what we had shown early. I thought it zapped us a little bit. I don’t worry about the percentage as much as the amount of points we can get from it. We were not getting enough points early in the year from it.”
Minnesota starting guard Payton Willis, who is averaging 11 points per game this season, missed his second straight game with an ankle injury.
Florida International: The Panthers lost their final big test before starting conference play. The defense held up early but Minnesota started to find its shots. FIU's offense was the real issue as the Panthers shot 33% in the first half and 36% for the game. FIU also had 17 turnovers. All four losses this season for the Panthers have been on the road.
Minnesota: The Gophers avoided the letdown after the two big wins against Ohio State and Oklahoma State and the ensuing break. Minnesota has certainly been tested this season, an aspect that should serve it well in the Big Ten. Through the games on Dec. 25, the Gophers had the fifth-toughest schedule in Division I as opponents held a 71.5% winning percentage.
FIU begins play in Conference USA at home against UTEP on Thursday. The Panthers were picked ninth in the conference by coaches in the preseason poll. UTEP was tied for fourth.
The bulk of Minnesota’s conference schedule lies ahead, starting at Purdue on Thursday. The Gophers and Boilermakers are both 1-1 so far in Big Ten action.