Amir Coffey seamlessly took over as the primary point guard. Dupree McBrayer, playing pain free, had his left-handed stroke in midseason form. Daniel Oturu quickly established his 6-foot-10 presence in his college debut.
This was just the kind of smooth opener Minnesota needed, after a rough last year.
Coffey had 18 points in 24 minutes, McBrayer scored 17 points on 5-for-6 shooting from 3-point range and Oturu had 14 points and eight rebounds, guiding the Gophers to a 104-76 victory over Omaha on Tuesday night.
“I’m about as excited as I’ve been in a long time,” coach Richard Pitino said.
Jordan Murphy pitched in 12 points, 10 rebounds and five assists for the Gophers, who shot 63 percent from the floor and built a 54-26 advantage in points in the paint. Isaiah Washington added 11 assists off the bench.
Zach Jackson led the Mavericks with 21 points, and Mitch Hahn had 14 points and five rebounds. J.T. Gibson, one of four returning starters and a native of Minnesota who starred at Champlin Park High School in the Twin Cities area, added 10 points for Omaha.
Coffey, who played on the wing in his first two seasons and missed 14 games as a sophomore because of a shoulder injury, brought the ball up the court for much of the game in light of the departure of four-year standout Nate Mason. The 6-foot-8 Coffey, who had four assists, went 5 for 7 from the field and made all eight of his free throws. He played some at the shooting guard and small forward spots, but his size, calm and savviness makes Coffey a strong leader of the offense, with Washington as the top sub.
“When he decides to be aggressive he’s a totally different person, so we need that Amir all the time,” McBrayer said.
McBrayer gritted through a trying junior season with a stress reaction in his shin bone, as the Gophers sputtered to a 15-17 finish. His return to good health will be a big boost for the backcourt.
“When he’s healthy, he’s a really, really good guard,” Pitino said.
The Mavericks went more than 6½ minutes into the game without a field goal, including a missed dunk by Matt Pile, until Jackson finally knocked down a jumper in the paint. That gave them a jolt, because they used a 19-6 run capped by a 3-pointer from Gibson to take a 22-20 lead.
Oturu, the prize of an all-Minnesota freshman class along with wings Gabe Kalscheur and Jarvis Omersa, had a pair of putbacks, two rebounds and a blocked shot in the final 90 seconds of the first half to help the Gophers pull away. Coffey, fouled behind the arc at the buzzer by Ayo Akinwole, made three free throws for a 50-31 lead at the break.
“Some athleticism caught up to us. Oturu got us on a couple things, some high-major plays that we can’t control,” Mavericks coach Derrin Hansen said.
NOT THIS TIME
Three years ago, the Mavericks gave the Gophers a scare on the day after Thanksgiving in 2015 when Gibson and Jackson were freshmen. Omaha pulled within one point with 24 seconds left, and Minnesota missed five of its final eight free throw attempts before pulling out a 93-90 victory.
This was Omaha’s ninth game against a Big Ten opponent since moving to Division I in 2011. The Mavericks have won once, at Iowa on Dec. 3, 2016.
Omaha: Coming off a 9-22 record in 2017-18 and predicted in the preseason Summit League poll to finish eighth out of nine, the Mavericks play their first of five road games against power-conference opponents on the 2018-19 schedule. In upcoming trips to Colorado, Iowa State, Arizona State and 14th-ranked Oregon, they have experience and balance to be competitive, but depth and length are limited. They were outrebounded 41-21, and the Gophers had a 35-18 edge in bench scoring.
Minnesota: Washington, the jewel of last year’s class who had a rocky first season, found Omersa with lob passes for a pair of second-half dunks that brought the small crowd of 8,883 to a roar.
“Just staying confident, bringing joy to the team, keeping the energy going, trying to keep my guys level-headed,” Washington said.
The Gophers might have played at too slow of a pace last season, Pitino said, for Washington to thrive.
“Isaiah learned how to play basketball by watching the NBA,” Pitino said. “I think you can tell that.”
Omaha: Plays Buena Vista, a Division III school in Iowa, in the home opener on Friday afternoon.
Minnesota: Hosts Utah on Monday night, the first-ever visit by the Utes to Williams Arena.
Source: The Associated Press