DES MOINES, Iowa — Gophers coach Richard Pitino popped back into locker room about a half hour after Minnesota beat Louisville 86-76 in an NCAA tournament first-round game Thursday. He was opening a cooler to grab a bottle of water for his daughter when Dupree McBrayer called him over.
“See what happens when you’re calm?” McBrayer said.
McBrayer had told Pitino to chill during the Gophers’ comeback victory over Penn State in the Big Ten tournament last week. They went on to beat Purdue the next day and seal a spot in March Madness.
On Sunday, the Gophers were paired against Louisville, the program for whom Pitino was an assistant and where his father, Rick, won a national title (since vacated) before being fired for the Cardinals’ role in a national recruiting scandal.
It would be natural for Pitino the son to become tense as he dealt with the repeated questions about how the game dug up his father’s checkered legacy.
“I’m truthful with it. I’m really not being diplomatic. It really wasn’t about that,” Pitino after the game.
But Pitino’s first NCAA tournament win helps further distancing himself from his father’s legacy. It also was the Minnesota’s first victory since 2013 when former coach Tubby Smith’s 11th-seeded team beat UCLA in the opening round.
If Pitino thought about the game’s connection with his father, “he didn’t show us,” junior guard Amir Coffey said. “He downplayed it. He just made it about the game. But I bet he’s feeling pretty good inside.”
Pitino and his veteran players bowed out in the first round two years ago in the No. 5-seeded Gophers’ 81-72 loss to 12th-seeded Middle Tennessee in Milwaukee.
“It lets us get the sick taste out of our mouth,” Coffey said.
Beyond that, it’s only the program’s second official win in the Big Dance since 1990 (not counting vacated victories from 1994 to 1997).
“Very big for us and our community and our fans,” freshman guard Gabe Kalscheur said.
Gophers fans will never have an NCAA tournament first-round game closer to Dinkytown than Thursday’s matchup with Louisville. With a caravan down Interstate 35, they took advantage, turning Wells Fargo Arena into Williams Arena South.
“It was a big-time performance from them, and hopefully we see them in a couple of days,” Pitino said.
The Gophers will face No. 2 seed and familiar Big Ten foe Michigan State on Saturday. The Spartans beat No. 15 Bradley 76-65 in a first-round game Thursday afternoon. Saturday’s game time is expected to be announced Thursday night.
No. 10 seed Minnesota (22-13) was a five-point underdog to No. 7 seed Louisville (20-14), but the U cruised by making 11 3-pointers — its second-highest total all season.
Kalscheur’s 24 points, including 5 of 11 from deep, led all scorers. Coffey and Jordan Murphy had 18 points apiece.
The Gophers built a game-high 19-point lead midway through the second half. They were able to do so after Murphy was hindered by lower-back tightness in the second half. He left the game with the Gophers leading 53-41. After getting treatment on the sideline, he returned with the U up 61-43.
Louisville went on a 7-0 run to cut it to 62-50 at 8:08 and made it single digits with Darius Perry’s 3-pointer with four minutes left.
The Cardinals employed a full-court press to continue to claw back into the game, cutting the U’s lead to 76-69 with two minutes left.
Minnesota turned multiple late in-bounds plays into adventures, burning two timeouts, and nearly every pass seemed uncertain. But Louisville had to foul, and the Gophers made 10 clutch free throws to ice the game.
In Thursday’s first half, Louisville and the Gophers exchanged the lead nine times before Gophers staked a 38-33 advantage at the break. This gave the U fans the opportunity to belt out a loud rendition of “Rouser” as teams went into the locker rooms.
The Gophers shot 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from deep in the first half, then kept it up in the second. They only reached those benchmarks in the same game three times this season.
The victory is Minnesota’s ninth in 11 official NCAA tournament appearances. Louisville was in its 39th official trip and first under new coach Chris Mack.
“You can’t undersell it,” Pitino said. “It’s a terrific win for our guys.”