Minnesota native Daniel Oturu tried his hardest to downplay the weight of Wednesday night’s 70-52 win over the Wisconsin Badgers.
“It was just a regular game to us,” Oturu said, grinning the whole time.
Roommate Payton Willis jumped in to set the record straight.
“He woke me up at 10 a.m. blasting music going, ‘We’ve got to get this one,'” Willis said. “It meant a little bit more.”
Minnesota rolled over Wisconsin by 18, their largest victory margin in Big Ten play and their first home win against the Badgers since Jan. 22, 2014 when Andre Hollins was the starting point guard. Hollins took in Wednesday’s game behind the Gophers bench and watched his alma mater lead by as many as 22 points in the second half.
In the rough and tumble Big Ten, things are rarely that easy. The Gophers’ rollercoaster month of January featured nine games. Minnesota went 4-5 and was able to scratch out single-digit wins against Northwestern, Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State, putting themselves in position to make a run towards March Madness with a good February.
The Gophers looked like a different team in their first game of the new calendar month, snapping a two-game losing skid and gaining some confidence with strong efforts on both ends of the floor. Minnesota scored 70 points in a game for the first time since Jan. 15 and held their rivals to a season-low 28.4 percent shooting.
“The game kind of goes through some ebbs and flows like it always does,” said head coach Richard Pitino, “and I thought we responded to whatever they threw at us.”
Wisconsin had momentum coming into the game after a massive home win over a ranked Michigan State squad, and they got back controversial point guard Brad Davison after a one-game suspension for on-court conduct. Davison, however, went without a field goal in 24 minutes and was booed relentlessly by Gophers students.
Meanwhile, the guards opposite Davison had one of their best collective efforts with 44 combined points.
“When those guys are clicking, it opens up things for everybody else,” Pitino said.
Marcus Carr was assertive getting to the rim, distributing the basketball and dictating the game’s tempo in transition. The sophomore flirted with the Gophers’ first triple-double since Mychal Thompson, finishing with 12 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds while playing all 40 minutes. Thanks to Carr’s ball-handling precision, the Gophers only turned the ball over once in the first 28 minutes of the game.
“Obviously a warrior,” said Pitino. “Only a sophomore. Just battled his butt off.”
Junior Payton Willis, back from an injury absence (shoulder), finished with a season-high 21 points on five three-pointers, including two early makes that electrified the crowd. Gabe Kalscheur contributed 11 points and three triples.
“When they’re shooting and hitting, our team becomes really explosive offensively,” Oturu said. “I feel like when we’re hitting shots, it helps us on the defensive end, giving us more energy to get opportunities to run back out on offense.”
It felt like the Gophers were due for an offensive outburst after their previous two games, in which they shot a collective 35 of 117 (30 percent). Minnesota erupted in the first half, shooting 18 of 33 (55 percent) from the floor and taking a 13-point halftime lead before cooling down mightily in the second half once the game was in hand. The Gophers had 20 points on the board with 12:42 remaining in the first half, matching their entire first-half point total from last Thursday’s loss at Illinois.
“We missed a lot of bunnies, a lot of layups at Illinois,” said Willis, “so we knew if we’re getting good looks, we knew they were going to eventually fall for us.”
Minnesota never trailed by fewer than 13 points in the second half. Coming out of the locker room with a 45-32 lead, Kalscheur and Oturu hit back-to-back 3s to ignite the fans once again. Oturu fouled out of the game in the final two minutes with a 17-point, 14-rebound double-double, outdueling former high school opponent Nate Reuvers, who battled against Oturu in the 2017 Minnesota State Basketball Tournament. Reuvers finished with 14 points and three boards.
The Gophers (12-10, 6-6) are tied for seventh in the Big Ten after the win but sit only 1.5 games out of a top-four spot in the constantly-shifting conference. With consecutive games coming up against Penn State and Iowa, teams above them in the standings, the intensity of the Gophers schedule is about to heat up.
“Not only is it Wisconsin, and that means a lot to the university and our state,” said Pitino, “but also, we want to get back to the NCAA Tournament.”