Expecting to see a Big Ten contender in Ben Johnson’s second season with the loss of preseason all-league star Jamison Battle is far-fetched for even the most die-hard Gophers basketball fans.
However, as the Gophers suffered 12 consecutive misses through a seven-minute scoring drought, the Williams Arena crowd bowed as they watched Monday morning against DePaul.
Fans even cheered during one possession to see if their support would motivate the players to score. That didn’t work either. The Gophers managed just 22 points on 27% shooting in the first half.
A much older, physically superior Big East squad overwhelmed its younger Big Ten foe from start to finish, ending the Gophers’ 16-game non-conference home winning streak 69-53 in front of an announced crowd of 8,426 at the barn.
“Everybody was pretty frustrated,” said sophomore Dawson Garcia, who finished with 14 of his 19 points after a 1-for-7 start to the second half. “There are two things we can do: either lie down or come to training tomorrow ready to go and ready to attack the day.”
The Gophers (2-1), who haven’t lost at home to a non-Big Ten foe since DePaul in 2019, looked helpless trying to keep the Blue Demons off the glass, giving up 20 offensive boards and 36 points in the paint. .
Johnson went from six seniors in last season’s rotation to four freshmen and two sophomores this year. The Blue Demons (3-0) have an average roster age of 22.6 years, the oldest roster among major programs and the fifth-oldest in Division I. Most of the younger Gophers haven’t encountered this kind of size and athleticism. It was their first major conference opponent.
“They have to go through this,” Johnson said. “Losing is never fun, and it’s never fun to be exposed like we’re coming back [48-32], especially physical and presence on the offensive glass. But we need to use this as an important opportunity to grow as a team.
Freshman Pharrell Payne scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half on 5-for-5 shooting, but the rest of his teammates were 3-for-25 from the field in the opening period. Payne hit two shots in the second half but missed the last two contests (12 for 12).
“The first half we were a little flat, but the second half we came out with a little more energy,” Payne said. “It was a little boost to get back into the game.”
Trailing 49-30 early in the second half, Garcia capped a 12-2 Gophers run with a three-pointer to cut the deficit in half for the first time since early shooting woes.
Payne left the game with his third foul, but teammate Joshua Ola-Joseph continued to battle on the glass.
The Gophers nearly pulled off an upset in a season-opening 61-60 win over Western Michigan when they missed 14 free throws. Those issues resurfaced Monday, including key misses, when he went 13-for-23.
Garcia was called for his second offensive charge four minutes into the second half with the Gophers trailing by nine points, but the Blue Demons dominated the boards.
After DePaul’s 18 and 19 attacks, Umoja Gibson and Javan Johnson scored five points to make it an 18-point margin. Johnson finished with 20 points and eight rebounds. Earl Penn had 10 points and 14 rebounds.
Minnesota Mr. Basketball Brayden Carrington made his Gophers debut with an ankle injury. Battle, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder last season, will add more experience to the Gophers if he can return “hopefully as soon as possible” from foot surgery last month.
“I think he’s in a really good place,” Johnson said of the rehab. “It’s not fun for him to sit and watch because he wants to be out there competing.”