The echoing of the ball bouncing and sneakers squeaking on Williams Arena’s raised floor Wednesday night could be heard clearer than ever.
Only it wasn’t a practice or even a closed scrimmage. It was the season opener for Richard Pitino’s Gophers.
The first official basketball game at the college or high school level played in Minnesota since the pandemic hit last season happened, not surprisingly, in front of empty seats.
The only “fans” were cardboard cutouts behind the basket, where the U’s marching band typically blares their instruments and the student section heckles the opposing bench.
Pitino’s new-look Gophers made their debut with only simulated crowd noise to pump them up. Again, not a surprise, but having to generate their own energy was tough for 40 minutes in a 99-69 victory against Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Fortunately for the Gophers, junior point guard Marcus Carr provided the constant pick-me-up with a career-high-tying 35 points on 12-for-22 shooting. Carr’s 21 second-half points sparked a much-needed 29-9 run after Green Bay cut it to a 10-point margin at 70-60 with 8 minutes, 35 seconds remaining.
“Definitely miss having the Barn, all our fans and the Gophers faithful getting on their feet for us,” Carr said. “It’s definitely something new, but we’re working on it. Today was a good step to kind of see how it’s going to be.”
With college basketball teams across the country canceling or postponing their opening games because of positive COVID-19 cases, just taking the court healthy was a victory for Pitino’s squad.
But from the opening tip, several Gophers newcomers were eager to make a splashy debut, crowd or no crowd.
Utah transfer and Austin native Both Gach had a solid all-around game of 14 points, five rebounds and four assists. Carr’s scoring took some pressure off Gach in his return to Minnesota.
“It meant a lot for me to be back home,” he said. “Marcus is a great point guard. He’s able to create for himself and create for others.”
The Gophers overpowered their lowly Horizon League opponent with their size and length defensively in the first half, scoring 26 points off 15 turnovers to take a 53-22 halftime lead.
With no previous scrimmages or games and a largely remade roster, the lack of a dress rehearsal of sorts before the big night was evident as the game progressed.
A 33-point lead early in the second half dwindled to 10 after two free throws by Green Bay’s Amari Davis with 8:35 left.
Carr then sank a three-pointer to answer a 10-0 run from the Phoenix, whose last win over a Big Ten opponent came vs. Wisconsin in 2009.
Gach followed with two free throws. Kalscheur, who opened 0-for-7 on three-pointers, then drilled his first of the game from beyond the arc and the Gophers were again comfortably ahead.
“It was pretty much about keeping our composure,” Gach said. “Settling down a bit, slowing down a bit and not playing too fast.”
Carr surpassed 30 points after a twisting layup, foul and free throw with 5½ minutes remaining.
Pitino looked for Carr to set the tone offensively at the beginning of last season, too, but there were some early losses as the former Pittsburgh transfer tried to build trust with his new team. This year, he already has their respect after the hard work he put in this offseason.
“He came here a different person,” Pitino said. “He came here a guy wanting to take the next step. He’s got aspirations of playing in the NBA.”
Seven-foot Drake transfer Liam Robbins struggled to find his rhythm with foul trouble, but still finished with 10 points and nine rebounds in 18 minutes.
The U’s newcomers combined for 33 points, including freshman Jamal Mashburn Jr. (five points) and graduate transfer Brandon Johnson (four).
The Gophers played last season through Carr and big man Daniel Oturu, who turned into an All-America and the program’s first NBA draft pick since 2004, but Carr plus some newcomers could make for Pitino’s deepest team yet. Their next nonleague warmup will be Saturday and Monday, both against Loyola Marymount.