SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. — Gophers fans flocked to meet Dennis Evans III when his 7-1 frame was seen ahead of the SoCal Challenge opener Monday in the J. Serra High School gym.
The five-star Gophers recruit made the hour-long drive from his Riverside home with his high school coach to watch his future team.
Ben Johnson’s team not only pulled off a thrilling overtime win, but also beat the Gophers’ best recruit in 20 years.
“It was really exciting to see them in action up close,” Evans told the Star Tribune. “I could definitely see how hard they are playing and how much they want to win.”
Even current U players like All-Big Ten junior Jamison Battle took notice of Evans, who witnessed the Gophers escape Cal Baptist in overtime to advance to Wednesday’s championship against UNLV.
“To see Dennis in the crowd, that’s great,” said Battle, who made his season debut on Monday following foot surgery. “To see us get a win like that and see us play in his home state is great.”
Johnson earlier this month signed a high-profile recruiting course for 2023 with Evans and Illinois guard Cameron Christie that shows just how strongly the program is trending upwards with the addition of big talent.
Evans, who had 23 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in one of his first games for Riverside Hillcrest this season, likes the Gophers’ style of play. He pointed out how they focus on ball movement and an emphasis on presenting their post players, including newcomer Pharrel Payne and transfer Dawson Garcia, who scored the game-winning basket in overtime on Monday.
“They definitely have a good style of play and are careful to spot discrepancies,” Evans said. “Trying to create what is the best recording.”
The Gophers big man of the future is impressed by the program’s gifted young big man of the present. The 6-9, 255-pound Payne had a career-high 15 points and 13 rebounds off the bench against Cal Baptist.
Payne leads the U.S. freshmen averaging 9.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in five games this season. His internal presence, with his first double-figure game on the boards of his career, was crucial as Garcia found himself in dire straits in the SoCal Challenge opener.
Payne’s overtime basket also put Garcia in position shortly after to put the Gophers ahead in the dwindling seconds. Payne’s growth in his sophomore season should relieve Evans of carrying the frontcourt load during his freshman year of college.
Evans looks forward to playing with the talented Gophers class of 2022 next season. Payne and fellow freshmen Jaden Henley and Braeden Carrington combined for 28 points Monday.
Henley, who is joined by his family, also grew up with Evans in California.
“It was [cool] to see the younger players get a chance to prove their allegiance,” said Evans.
How the Gophers fans cheered for their team to victory and responded with jubilation at his presence was humbling and “not something I’m used to,” Evans said with a smile.
“I’m glad to see that they’re so excited to have me,” Evans said. “And they welcome me so warmly to be part of the program.”