ASHEVILLE, N.C. – It didn’t matter that Gophers basketball fans were outnumbered by Western Kentucky faithful in Friday’s opening game of the Asheville Championship.
They still made their support known for first-year Minnesota men’s basketball coach Ben Johnson and his team. From player introductions and throughout the 73-69 win there were “Here we go Gophers” chants heard from the crowd.
More than a couple hundred Gophers fans in attendance decked in maroon and gold sat across from the bench, including a group of a few dozen boosters that flew together Thursday from Minneapolis.
“I think everybody’s optimistic,” said Steve Erban, co-owner of Creative Charters. “They wanted to watch the Gophers play win or lose in this tournament.”
Creative Charters, based in Stillwater, has been helping fans travel to Gophers games since 1993. Erban, who has attended every Gophers men’s hoops game since Clem Haskins’ Sweet 16 season in 1988-89, had gold T-shirts made with the names of Johnson and his staff on the back and mention of the “First Basketball Road Trip” in his tenure.
Johnson, a former Gophers assistant and player, talked with the Golden Dunkers booster club in the fall after inviting them to watch a practice to get familiar with his newcomer-laden squad.
Erban said the interest in Johnson’s program has been strong with his previous ties to the program.
“Ben and [Gophers assistant and former DeLaSalle coach] Dave Thorson are Minnesota guys,” Erban said. “They understand how to take care of the fans. They want to build a foundation. I think they’re back to the Clem attitude. We’re all supportive of them.”
Haskins, 78, was strongly considering attending Friday’s game against the Hilltoppers, but he couldn’t travel due to a personal commitment. He has strong Western Kentucky ties as a former player and former head coach and assistant with the program.
“It would’ve been so incredible to have him here watching us,” said Thorson, who got his start as a Division I assistant with Haskins in the early 1990s. “I know he really wanted to be here.”
Sophomore Jamison Battle, who scored a team-high 20 points Friday, said he was grateful for the fans who traveled to see his Gophers team play for the first time away from home.
“It just shows the support we have for Gophers basketball,” Battle said. “That’s something I will hold in my heart seeing fans here in Asheville, North Carolina. That’s far. It’s good to see and it helped us get this victory.”