The Gophers opened their foreign tour sightseeing historic Rome sites like the Vatican and Colosseum, but this wasn’t just a leisurely trip to Italy.
They had to play some basketball games, too.
Watching his team trail by 16 points in the first half Tuesday, Richard Pitino juggled lineups that included playing all seven of his newcomers. Minnesota got a rude awakening to life without stars like Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy, but they survived to beat Stella Azzurra Academy 84-79.
The Gophers made the score a lot closer than it should've been down the stretch by shooting just 14-for-33 from the free throw line, including 5-for-17 in the second half.
“That was good competition for us,” Pitino said on a team video after the game. “We haven’t practiced in awhile touring around the city, but it was fun to get that competitive feeling back.”
Sophomores Gabe Kalscheur and Daniel Oturu are the only two starters returning from a 22-win team that reached the NCAA tournament second round.
The U’s trip to Italy was a chance to see which newcomers would be able to fill major roles. The starting lineup Tuesday included transfers Marcus Carr, Payton Willis and Alihan Demir.
Four of the five starters scored in double figures, including Oturu's team-high 16 points, six rebounds and three blocks. Demir and Willis were the most impressive newcomers, combining for 27 points.
Demir, a 6-foot-9 Drexel graduate transfer, had 13 points and 10 rebounds. Willis, a Vanderbilt transfer scored seven of his 14 points in the fourth quarter, including the second of back-to-back threes after Minnesota faced a 75-73 deficit with under three minutes left.
Oturu followed a free throw with a huge block on the ensuing possession at the 2 1/2-minute mark to give the Gophers a critical defensive stop. Willis then found Kalscheur for three to make it 77-75 Minnesota. Willis and Oturu scored seven points during a 9-0 run that sealed the win.
The Gophers, who trailed 32-16 in the first quarter, struggled defending early with their opponent shooting 60 percent (9-for-15) in the first period. Stella Azzurra wasn’t intimidated after playing another Big Ten opponent on Monday in an 87-56 loss to Nebraska.
Oturu, who also showed off his improved range with a three-pointer, helped the Gophers chip away at their deficit by pounding the ball inside. Demir, who is expected to replace Murphy at power forward, attacked the offensive glass. On one possession he grabbed three of his team-high seven offensive rebounds to finally score on a putback.
Willis and freshman point guard Bryan Greenlee gave the the Gophers some balance with much-needed outside shooting in the second half. They both hit a hit pair of threes. Minnesota nailed seven of its 10 made shots from beyond the arc after halftime.
Greenlee hit his second three to open the fourth quarter giving the Gophers a 67-65 advantage. The 6-foot Florida native was the last player to sign in Minnesota’s 2019 class, which included Tre’ Williams, Isaiah Ihnen and Sam Freeman. But Greenlee led the freshmen with eight points and two assists.
Ihnen, who went scoreless on 0-for-3 shooting, was still bothered by an ankle injury he suffered in practice, Pitino said.
Stella Azzurra Academy plays semi-professionally in the third division of the Italian basketball league (Serie B). In 2002-03, former No. 1 NBA Draft pick Andrea Bargnani made his Italian pro league debut with the squad.
Leading the way for Stella Azzurra on Tuesday was 6-7 forward Paul Eboua with 26 points. Eboua declared for the 2019 NBA Draft, but withdrew his name before the deadline. The 19-year-old Cameroon native was mentioned in an SI.com article on the Basketball Without Borders Camp in Los Angeles in 2018.
“It was good for us,” Pitino said. “We’re kind of starting over with seven new guys. We were kind of beating up on each other, so it was good to see what we’re pretty good at it. Offensively, we’ve got a pretty good team. Defensively, we’ve got a ways to go. We’re not real connected. If one mistake happens, we’ve got to learn to make up for it.”
The Gophers play their next two games on Thursday against Tuscan Select in Florence and Saturday against Como Select in Bologna.