The Gophers were playing arguably their best 24 minutes of basketball this season Saturday when senior captain Nate Mason crumpled to the Williams Arena floor and grasped in pain at his lower left leg.
The Williams Arena crowd fell silent as Mason needed the trainer and teammate Jamir Harris to help him off the court early in the second half.
Mason still led the Gophers with all of his 17 points in the first half of a 95-60 victory over Florida Atlantic, but the question about his status moving forward loomed after the game. The Gophers announced Saturday night that Mason is day-to-day after injuring his left ankle.
“Hoping for the best,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said before the team made its announcement later Saturday. “I thought he was really, really good. Seventeen points in 21 minutes. He was efficient and defending, showing great leadership.”
The 6-foot-2 Georgia native came out firing with 5-for-8 shooting from three-point range in the first half. The five three-pointers already tied Mason’s career high, set last season against Illinois.
A first-team All-Big Ten selection last season, Mason was bumped by Florida Atlantic’s center Ronald Delph reaching for a steal on Anthony Adger when he stumbled and appeared to plant awkwardly on his left foot and slowly fall backward to the floor with 16 minutes, 33 seconds left in the second half.
Pitino came to Mason’s side with some teammates and team trainer giving him assistance down the steps to the locker room.
Mason, who couldn’t put weight on his left leg, was scheduled for a magnetic resonance imaging exam Saturday night.
“Hopefully it’s nothing too serious,” Pitino said. “He’s a tough kid.”
The Gophers (11-3) replaced Mason with freshman Isaiah Washington, who quickly scored on a layup to extend it to a 65-33 lead. Washington, who once looked to be a starter alongside Mason this season in the backcourt, could potentially have to take over as the Gophers’ floor leader if Mason’s injury is longer than anticipated.
The Gophers have a weeklong break before their next game, Dec. 30 against Harvard at home. Big Ten play resumes with home games vs. Illinois on Jan. 3 and Indiana on Jan. 6.
“It’s tough for any freshman to throw him into that kind of role,” Pitino said on Washington possibly becoming the team’s starting point guard. “Isaiah does a lot of good, but he’s got a lot to learn, too. … We’re a better team when everybody is healthy. The more experience Isaiah gets the better for him. You don’t just replace Nate Mason, certainly.”
Going into the Christmas break, the bright side is the Gophers have momentum with a three-game winning streak, bouncing back from two consecutive demoralizing road losses to Nebraska and Arkansas.
Jordan Murphy, who had his 14th consecutive double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds, is playing like a strong contender for Big Ten’s Player of the Year.
A co-captain with Mason this season, Murphy said he needed to be more vocal and step up his leadership if his point guard is sidelined.
“He seemed to be in good spirits when I saw him,” Murphy said. “I just wanted to know what was wrong, what was hurting and trying to be there for him the best I could. At the end of the day, Nate’s the type of dude who wants to deal with it on his own. We’re going to be there for him anything he needs.”
The Gophers figure to need to be healthy if they want to compete with Michigan State and Purdue for Big Ten title. Saturday, they played for the third time this season without another starting guard, junior Dupree McBrayer, who was resting a lower left leg injury.
Pitino said McBrayer’s status remains day-to-day and that he is not cleared yet to play in the next game. Michael Hurt replaced McBrayer in the starting lineup for the second game in a row.
For a team already starving for bench production to begin with that could have been a significant blow, the Gophers still got 34 points off the bench against Florida Atlantic (6-6). Washington had eight points, eight rebounds and three assists. Davonte Fitzgerald and Jamir Harris both had nine points. Bakary Konate grabbed six rebounds.
Hurt had a career-high 10 points in his first career start Thursday in a 77-63 victory Oral Roberts. The Rochester John Marshall product followed that up with eight points Saturday, all in the first half, when the Gophers shot 58 percent from the floor and led 53-31 at halftime.