Written By Sam Ekstrom (ColdOmaha.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski
Head coach Richard Pitino said the critical word was “Respond” heading into a road matchup with 15th-ranked Purdue. And respond they did.
The Golden Gophers were fresh off a heartbreaking conference opener in which they blew a 15-point lead against Michigan State and failed on two game-winning shots.
Just as Minnesota rebounded in November from a tough road loss at Florida State with a gritty neutral-site victory against Vanderbilt, they bounced back from their disappointment against the Spartans by winning in a packed Mackey Arena, where only two teams had entered since the start of the 2015-16 season and come out victoriously. “We just talked in the huddle, saying we don’t want to be in the same predicament as last year,” said guard Dupree McBrayer, thinking back to the Gophers’ terrible start a year ago. “Let’s tough it out; let’s get this win.”
The 91-82 overtime triumph over the Boilermakers – a tournament team from a year ago – gives the Gophers the validation they’ve long been seeking. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after his team snuck out of Williams Arena with a one-point win that it was the best Gophers team he had seen in a long time. Turns out, he might be right.
Minnesota did not win a Big Ten road game last season. Sunday they not only notched a difficult road win but did it against a Top 25 team. Now they’re faced with a fresh challenge on Thursday against Northwestern, a club that beat the Gophers by 25 and 24 points, respectively, a year ago. A loss to the 12-3 Wildcats could quickly harsh Minnesota’s mellow before they head home and face Ohio State.
The Gophers have shown they can respond to adversity, but how will they handle prosperity?
“You can’t be frauds,” said Pitino, “in the sense that when people talk bad about you, ‘Oh, we’re gonna block out the noise.’ But then when they talk good about you, you can’t eat that up, too, so it’s just the same. I always tell these guys, it’s not as bad as it may seem and it’s not as good as it may seem.
“Stay hungry, stay humble, want more, enjoy the taste of success and want to continue to move forward with it.”
The Purdue win showed how far the Gophers have come in several facets. For one, point guard Nate Mason took the next step as one of the top guard’s in the conference. With Purdue on a 7-0 run in the first half, Mason hit a crowd-quieting 3-pointer and put his finger over his lips to punctuate the silence. When the Gophers fell behind by seven in the second half, Mason went into attack mode, scoring 10 of the Gophers’ next 13 points and gave them a 3-point lead with an acrobatic and-1. He ended with a career-high 31 points.
“You just saw him grow up,” said Pitino, “and every time that crowd was on their feet, the roof was about to blow open, he quieted them down. Now I’d prefer he didn’t tell them to be quiet, but that’s OK. I like the confidence there.”
— Sam Ekstrom (@SamEkstrom) January 4, 2017
“I don’t think he’s vocal to the point where everybody sees it,” said forward Jordan Murphy, “but every time we huddle, every time we’re huddled on the court, during a timeout or something, he’s always saying something.
“Nate’s never one to back down to anyone. Having a leader like that’s pretty great.”
Murphy, despite fouling out against the Boilermakers, played a big role with 16 points and a pair of 3-point shots, just his second and third makes of the season from beyond the arc. The sophomore shot just 22 percent from long range last season and was 1 of 11 going into play on Sunday, but his season-high four 3-point attempts could be the birth of a new instrument in Murphy’s toolbox. “So you’re a shooter now?” center Reggie Lynch joked with Murphy on Wednesday morning.
Murphy wasn’t alone as a big man shooting 3-balls against Purdue. Freshman Eric Curry made a pair of long-range shots as well, combining with Murphy to go 4 of 9 from deep. This helped neutralize Purdue’s physical big men, who would have made it tough on the young Gophers to succeed in the paint.
— Sam Ekstrom (@SamEkstrom) January 4, 2017
“I like pick-and-pop 4-men,” Pitino said. “Do we need to rely on that all the time? Probably not. But that’s a nice dimension to have because we run a lot of ball screens, and that’s what ball screens are. If you’ve got shooters, like we did with Joey [King], then they’ve got to switch, and now if you can put them in a position where you’ve got a little on a big, you roll them into the post or you drive or whatever it may be.”
McBrayer notes that he’s seen the big men working on their outside shot all season, trying to reach a point where they can rely on the shot consistently. “Murph is always in the gym,” said McBrayer. “When we’re doing our individuals, he takes it really seriously. Him and Eric [Curry], they take it really seriously, so you can see an improvement.”
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Sunday’s win was the perseverance in a tight game. Pitino’s teams have often failed in game-deciding situations, never more evidently than when the Gophers faltered in the closing seconds – twice – against Michigan State. Against Purdue, Minnesota withstood a game-tying shot by Caleb Swanigan in regulation, weathered overtime with three big men having fouled out and won by a healthy margin against the team with all the momentum heading into the extra session.
To reiterate, however, a loss at Northwestern could quickly reverse the Gophers’ trajectory. “They should feel good about themselves, but they should also understand that if you don’t get better, somebody else is getting better,” said Pitino. “Northwestern is obviously an opponent we really, really respect.”