Mavericks were no pushovers as they gave Gophers an early-season test
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MINNEAPOLIS - Considering the opponent, the Gophers' 92-79 win over Nebraska-Omaha on Friday night might seem like just another win against another one of those hyphenated, cupcake schools that have become an annual staple of December.
But if you take a closer look, you may walk away thinking this was one of their more impressive victories of this young, 12-game season.
On the surface, Friday's win does very little for the Gophers, at least in terms of public perception.
Win and you've done little more than beaten a glorified Division-II school, a team that was playing the likes of Mankato State and Augustana just three years ago; lose and you've embarassed the University of Minnesota.
OK, maybe that was a little over the top. But a loss would've been devastating.
However, dig a little deeper and you'll see these Mavericks are no pushovers. They came into the night riding a five-game winning streak. Their three losses were all by single digits -- all on the road with two against tough squads in UNLV and Iowa.
They were getting votes in the CollegeInsider.com mid-major poll for the first time in school history. In short, even though this looked like a walk in the park, perception was not reality on Friday night.
"I have a lot of respect for that team," Gophers head coach Richard Pitino said. "They're a quiet mid-major team and they were picked at the bottom of their league. If they're at the bottom of their league, the Summit League is really good."
"The first half we certainly made some mistakes, but they were beating us. It wasn't like we were really beating ourselves. They were making big-time plays."
Those big-time plays included a field day from three-point land. The Mavericks went 10-for-16 from beyond the arc in the first half. Of course, they were only able to manage a 44-44 tie at the break, in part because of a 4-for-15 mark inside the arc. That inspired a halftime talk from junior captain Andre Hollins, who helped focus the Gophers' defense in the second half.
"We came in here and I specifically told the team, 'That's the only thing that's keeping them in the game, three-point shooting,'" Hollins said. "You've got to give them credit because they shot unbelievably. My emphasis was, chase them off the line, make them put the ball on the floor and try to make them make a play against our bigs. They only scored four field goals in the first half. We wanted to get them to try to make plays instead of just looking for that three-point shot. I think we did a good job of that in the second half."
And how. In the final 20 minutes, the Mavericks went 0-for-8 on threes and were worn down by guards Malik Smith and DeAndre Mathieu, who combined to score 31 of their 46 points in the second half. It left the two newcomers - roommates as well as backcourt mates - to reinforce a mutual admiration in the locker room after the game.
"He's one of the best guards I've played with - lightning fast, as you guys already know," Smith said of Mathieu. "He creates a lot of things for all of us. Without him I don't think we'd have the record we have right now."
What about Smith?
"Malik's a pure shooter. He can shoot it, and then once he starts making a couple shots guys will close out and he's strong and gets in the lane and finishes," Mathieu said. "Malik's done this in practice all the time so we weren't shocked that he was making all those threes."
It was a rare night when Austin and Andre Hollins didn't have to carry the Gophers. But they still had noteworthy nights, especially Andre, who scored his 1,000th career point and had his first collegiate double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
"It feels good to go down in the history books scoring 1,000 points next to one of my good friends," Andre Hollins said, referring to Austin, who scored his 1,000th point in the Gophers' most recent game on Dec. 10 against South Dakota State.
As for his rebounding, Andre Hollins said it was part opportunity and part intention. After all, the Gophers will need their guards to rebound this year with their limitations inside. And with the Mavericks leaning so heavily on the outside shot on Friday, the door was open for the guards to crash the boards.
"They were shooting the ball long so I was trying to get to the weak side where the ball is probably most likely going to go, and grab it," Andre Hollins said. "They didn't box me out so I'm going to take advantage of that."
But the focus of the postgame chatter deservedly fell on Mathieu and Smith, two players who are making the jump from the juco and mid-major level, respectively, and have yet to see their first Big Ten action.
But for one night, at least, Pitino liked what he saw.
"Those two guys are fearless," Pitino said. "As long as they defend, as long as they work hard, I'll give them all the offensive freedom in the world."
Smith demonstrated some of that freedom on one of his three-pointers, when he gave a shot fake that sent a defender flying past him, then took one dribble to the side before he calmly drilled another long jumper. For a guy known as a catch-and-shoot specialist, it was a bit of a revelation.
"People think I'm just a shooter but I've been working on my ball-handling a lot," Smith said. "I was able to shake him and create some separation and shoot the shot. I can do it, but most of the time in this offense it's just not necessary for me to do it. I just take what the defense gives me and I just try to be as aggressive as possible."
Pitino said it's all part of the Malik Smith Experience, so Minnesota fans should just enjoy the ride.
"You've got to live with some craziness," said Pitino, who coached Smith at Florida International University last season. "People, I think, in the first couple games probably said, 'What is with this kid?' But then once he settles down and gets comfortable ... He's extremely confident and he just shows when you play that confident you can do really good things."