Richard Pitino went to dinner with his family Saturday evening, but the Gophers men’s basketball coach kept checking his phone for any news on point guard Nate Mason.
Mason left in the second half of that afternoon’s victory over Florida Atlantic after injuring his left ankle. He couldn’t put any weight on his leg as he was helped into the locker room. So coaches, fans and teammates feared the worst.
“Any time somebody is struggling to get up, you think of the worst,” sophomore Amir Coffey said. “We all prayed for him that night.”
A magnetic resonance imaging exam revealed no serious damage. The All-Big Ten senior captain should be ready for conference play, and he might return as soon as Saturday, when the Gophers play host to Harvard at Williams Arena.
“I’m hopeful he’ll play,” Pitino said Friday. “If you asked him, he’ll say he’s going to play. We want him ready more than anything.”
The Gophers haven’t played an entire game with their starting backcourt of Mason, Coffey and Dupree McBrayer together and healthy since a Nov. 24 victory over Massachusetts in New York.
The next day, Mason was ejected in the second half of a victory over Alabama, which ended up becoming the infamous 5-on-3 game after the Crimson Tide had its entire bench ejected, then lost two other players.
After the Gophers (11-3) returned home, McBrayer was sidelined for their Nov. 29 loss to Miami (Fla.), when he ended up going to the hospital to receive medication for a right leg infection. McBrayer lost 20 pounds and hasn’t been 100 percent since. He returned briefly before a previous left leg injury resurfaced and caused him to miss the Gophers’ past two games.
“I was kind of down,” McBrayer said. “These guys have been keeping me up and telling me to stay positive … because it hurts when you’re not at 100 percent to perform the way you want to.”
Pitino expects McBrayer to play Saturday. The Gophers need their three starting guards to play at a high level to contend in the Big Ten. Conference play starts up again with two more home games, Wednesday against Illinois and Jan. 6 against Indiana.
“Dupree more than anything, he just needed a break,” Pitino said. “Our trainer looked at the schedule and said we could give him off for Christmas. [The leg injury is] always going to be there, so it’s more monitoring it.”
Mason, who ranks second on the team in scoring (15.5 points per game) and first in assists (4.1), rolled his left ankle when he was bumped going for a steal early in the second half of last week’s 95-60 victory over Florida Atlantic.
At that point, the Georgia native had played arguably his best 21 minutes of the season. Mason scored all of his team-high 17 points in the first half on 5-for-8 shooting from three-point range.
Freshman Isaiah Washington took over to finish with seven points, eight rebounds and three assists in 16 minutes. But there’s nobody on the Gophers roster who can replace Mason.
“It was a big, big sigh of relief, because he’s obviously extremely important to our team,” Pitino said of Mason’s return. “He was playing well.”
Coffey is averaging 14.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists and has made strides from his All-Big Ten freshman season. The Gophers have also seen growth in freshman guards Washington and Jamir Harris, but they are looking forward to being at full strength in the starting backcourt soon.
“When we have a full healthy team we can be pretty dangerous,” Coffey said. “We haven’t had too many games with a full team. Getting a couple guys back will mean a lot, especially going into Big Ten play.”