By Patrick Donnelly
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — All it took was one mistake and Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino benched his leading scorer for 5 minutes.
If he wanted to send a message, it was received loud and clear.
Andre Hollins led six Golden Gophers in double figures with 18 points as Minnesota defeated New Orleans 80-65 on Saturday afternoon.
The Gophers (8-2) were coming off their most impressive victory of the season, a 10-point win over Florida State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Tuesday. But hoping to avoid a letdown against the lightly regarded Privateers (1-4), Pitino had his team on a short leash early.
Hollins earned a seat on the bench after the Gophers’ first possession when he wasn’t paying attention and let a pass skip past him.
“It wasn’t a miscommunication. I just thought it was a different play than what it was,” Hollins said. “I wasn’t focused. He said you can’t have lapses like that, and that’s what you’ve got to learn from.”
Two minutes later, Pitino called a timeout after New Orleans scored two quick baskets to tie the game at 4-4.
“I thought we just didn’t play with a whole lot of confidence out there or a whole lot of energy,” Pitino said. “I think we’ve worked too hard and I do believe that we’ve earned the right to have a little confidence out there, and I didn’t see that today.”
Center Mo Walker, making his first start of the season, scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds for Minnesota. Cory Dixon led the Privateers with 16 points, while Matt Derenbecker added 14 points and eight boards.
New Orleans lost its fourth straight and was coming off a 10-day layoff. The rust showed, especially early on. They shot just 34.6 from the field in the first half and committed 12 of their 17 turnovers before the break.
But after falling behind by as many as 24 points in the second half, the Privateers rallied to make the Gophers sweat. Derenbecker connected on three straight 3-pointers as an 18-4 run cut Minnesota’s lead to 64-54.
“We never gave up. We never lost hope,” Derenbecker said. “We knew, the way Minnesota plays, they wanted to beat us by 70 or 80 points. So they were going to give us opportunities, and we just had to stay strong. Me catching rhythm kind of helped. It was just ‘whop, whop, whop.’ I was put into the opportunity to make those shots, and I just hit them.”
New Orleans reduced the lead to single digits just once in the second half, when a layup by Kevin Hill made the score 69-61 with 3 minutes, 30 seconds to play. But Walker and Oto Osenieks each hit two free throws and Austin Hollins capped the scoring with a 3-pointer in the final minute.
Minnesota played most of the game without starting center Elliott Eliason, who was slowed by a sprained ankle. Eliason, who’s averaging 26.4 minutes per game, subbed in for Walker early in the first half but checked out again soon thereafter and watched the rest of the game from the sidelines.
Andre Hollins didn’t keep him company there for long. He returned after 5 minutes on the bench and keyed a 9-0 run with a 3-pointer and two free throws to put Minnesota ahead 21-6.
“He was pretty aggressive towards the middle part (and) towards the end of the first half, and we need him to do that,” Pitino said. “We need an aggressive Andre Hollins. We need an aggressive Austin Hollins. We need an aggressive (point guard) DeAndre Mathieu.”
The Privateers cut the lead to 25-15 on the strength of seven points by Dixon, but then Minnesota scored 11 straight points in a 70-second span to put some distance between the teams.
“We took a lot of positive things away from this, (but) we don’t preach moral victories,” Dixon said. “It’s a loss.”
The Gophers weren’t 100 percent pleased with the outcome either, but at least they had a chance to celebrate a victory and a learning experience.
“Overall, we got the win. The best time to learn is to learn from winning,” Pitino said. “It wasn’t great by any means. I’ve said it from Day 1, we can lose to anybody and we can beat anybody. I think that was a wakeup call today.”