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Dawson Garcia didn't wait to show his improved leadership this year after being challenged by Gophers coach Ben Johnson and teammates this offseason.

The 6-11 junior led the way in the season-opening 80-60 win Monday against Bethune-Cookman with 23 points on 14-for-16 free throws, 14 rebounds and a career-high-tying six assists.

Garcia's vocal leadership was just as impressive as him stuffing the stat sheet in a game where the Gophers let a 27-point lead shrink to 10 points with five minutes left.

"I wanted to know how we would respond, especially the guys who were here last year," Johnson said. "One of the good things that happened in the [under-four-minute timeout] was Dawson spoke up. He basically said he didn't know if last year's team could've handled that."

Garcia's all-around performance was one of four things learned from Monday's opening win:

Dawson's dimes

Few 6-11 big men not named Nikola Jokić can toss alley-oop passes for dunks as pretty as Garcia threw to Joshua Ola-Joseph on Monday night.

Pressured at the three-point line early in the first half, Garcia saw Ola-Joseph wide open under the basket. After a pump fake, he lobbed it high where he knew his explosive 6-7 teammate could finish. Garcia had four of his six assists in the first half.

The last of his dimes came in transition with a quick connection to Braeden Carrington for the slam during a 10-1 run that thwarted Bethune-Cookman's second-half comeback.

Garcia is the first major conference player to post at least 23 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and one block in a game since Duke's Jalen Johnson in 2021 (before that, it was Duke's RJ Barrett in 2019), per player reference.

Transition time

The Gophers finally have an offensive identity. It's playing fast and downhill. It wasn't perfect Monday night with 17 turnovers, but they scored 46 points in the first half, including 10 fast-break points.

Last season, the Gophers never scored more than 79 points in a game, including in two overtime games. They have better personnel to play up-tempo and more scoring options than they did a year ago.

It all starts with Howard transfer Elijah Hawkins, who had 10 points in his Gophers debut. Hawkins, who averaged six assists last season, only had one assist, but his speed was contagious.

Hawkins got into foul trouble in the first half, but Pepperdine transfer Mike Mitchell Jr. picked up where he left off by pushing the ball up the floor. Mitchell finished with four assists.

This up-tempo style was also on display in the Gophers' exhibition win vs. Macalester when they had 24 fast-break points. They had 15 fast-break points on Monday (more than any game last season), compared to zero in last year's opening win vs. Western Michigan.

Fox and Ihnen back

Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen felt the emotion of being back after a two-year absence with injuries in last week's Macalester exhibition, but Monday was their first official game this season.

Fox had never played for the Gophers before this season, so fans finally got to see how he could impact the frontcourt with his athleticism. The 6-8 senior from Mahtomedi had seven points on 3-for-3 shooting, but his most spectacular play was a baseline dunk that ignited the crowd in the second half.

Ihnen, who had eight points and four rebounds, impressed the Gophers with his versatility by nailing a three-pointer and recording three steals and a block. His 7-4 wingspan was disruptive defensively.

Payne and Christie update

Pharrel Payne returned from a minor injury to start at center Monday alongside Garcia. The 6-9 sophomore could make a big jump this season, but he needs to get 100% healthy. Payne had five points, two rebounds and a block in 16 minutes in the opener. Johnson said the Gophers planned to limit Payne's minutes after he just recently returned to practice.

Freshman Cam Christie was in street clothes Monday, but Johnson expects him to make his Gophers debut Friday against UTSA. The 6-6 former four-star recruit missed several weeks with an illness and needed more practice before playing in the exhibition and season opener.

"He's had only two practices," Johnson said. "I knew he had to get more under his belt before I felt comfortable playing him. So, it always had been looked at for UTSA to be the game. He was only doing about 45 minutes in practice."