MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Richard Pitino’s day ended a lot better than it started.
Only hours after losing out on a prized in-state recruit and announcing a six-game suspension for one of his promising big men, Pitino earned his first victory as Minnesota’s coach on Friday night — an 81-62 victory over Lehigh.
“Norwood (Teague) told me he’d fire me if I lost tonight,” Pitino joked, referring to his athletics director. “It was a good win.”
The Gophers were led by newcomer Joey King, who scored 20 points, and Andre Hollins added 18. Junior Elliott Eliason had 11 points and 17 rebounds for his first-career double-double. Eliason saw extra minutes in part because of reserve forward Maurice Walker’s suspension over an unspecified university policy. In two exhibition games for the Gophers, Walker scored 26 points and grabbed 18 rebounds and is expected to provide Minnesota’s thin front court some needed depth.
Walker is expected to travel with the team later this month to the Maui Invitational, where he’ll most likely play in Minnesota’s second-round game.
“We support Mo, we love Mo, can’t wait to get him back in Maui,” Pitino said. “He’s going to be a big help to our basketball team.”
Walker’s suspension wasn’t the only disappointing news of the afternoon. The Gophers also learned star recruit Reid Travis chose Stanford over Minnesota. The news certainly put an early damper on Pitino’s highly anticipated debut. The son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, he spent one season as Florida International University’s head coach before replacing the fired Tubby Smith in Minnesota in April. Smith led the Gophers to the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, but it wasn’t enough to preserve his job. Pitino was hired the next month and on Friday received a nice ovation from the home crowd.
Asked if he was relieved to get the first game over with, Pitino said: “I try not to think like that, I just try to get these guys to think, ‘let’s just think big picture, let’s try to get better every single day.'”
Even without Walker’s 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame, though, Minnesota dominated inside and outscored Lehigh 34-20 in the paint.
“We’re locked in to play games,” Eliason said. “This is what we’ve been waiting for, for so long. We’ve had all these days in practice, and we’re not going to lose our focus for anything.”
Mackey McKnight led Lehigh with 18 points and Austin Price added 15, but the Mountain Hawks were overmatched against the more experienced Gophers.
“It was a good test for us,” McKnight said. “We have a lot of young guys, so it was good for them to get their feet wet and see how a real college basketball game is like. It was a learning experience. The whole season is going to be a learning experience. But it’s a process and we understand that.”
Hollins made five free-throws in the first three minutes and a fast-break dunk at 13:06 to give the Gophers a 14-6 lead. King, a sophomore who played his freshman season at Drake, followed with a 3-pointer as Minnesota pulled away early.
Lehigh finally found a rhythm midway through the second half during a 13-1 run that cut Minnesota’s lead to 48-36. But two free throws by Eliason, a 3-point play by King, and back-to-back field goals by Hollins and Austin Hollins pushed the lead back to 21.
“We were doing everything to win. But we couldn’t keep it up,” Price said.
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