Gophers men’s basketball fans had a wait-and-see approach the first few months of the 2016-17 season, so they didn’t realize right away how much better this team was from last year.
Saturday’s victory over Penn State, one of the bottom teams in Big Ten, drew the second Williams Arena sellout of the season.
But it wasn’t like playing rival Wisconsin. So that was a sign that fans were finally all in with coach Richard Pitino’s NCAA tournament-bound squad.
The Gophers gave the Barn one last show with their eighth consecutive victory Thursday night, this one a convincing 88-73 rout of Nebraska in front of an announced crowd of 12,321.
“Thank you for an awesome year at home,” Pitino said afterward. “But we’re not finished.”
Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy likely solidified their spots somewhere on the All-Big Ten teams with a combined 45 points to lead the Gophers (23-7, 11-6 Big Ten), who have their most conference victories since the vacated 1996-97 Big Ten championship and Final Four season.
Their five consecutive home victories form the program’s longest Big Ten home streak since 2001-02.
They averaged more than 12,000 fans during the last home stretch, a considerable jump from when the Gophers ranked near last in the Big Ten in attendance with 9,091 fans on average during the 13-game nonconference schedule.
Pitino was appreciative that Gophers faithful stuck with the team even after it lost three of its first four Big Ten home games.
“We sat there and had a quiet confidence about where we were going,” Pitino said. “And I kept telling [players] every game that your effort will put, maybe it’s 100 people, 200 people [in the seats]. Every single game it’s going to grow. You looked at Penn State and this crowd, normally you get it vs. the big names.”
Mason finished with 25 points on 9-for-13 shooting. Murphy had 20 points and 11 rebounds, his 11th double-double this season and sixth in seven games.
Nebraska (12-17, 6-11) won four of the previous five meetings in the series, including by 25 last year in Lincoln. But the Cornhuskers were overmatched in this one after tying it 16-16 midway through the first half.
The Gophers used a 10-0 run to pull away after Mason’s three free throws gave them an 11-point lead. They led the Huskers 40-27 at halftime, with Murphy leading the way with 12 points.
Murphy and Reggie Lynch provided easy offense in the paint for the Gophers, who shot 62 percent in the second half and 56 percent for the game. The frontcourt tandem combined for 31 of the Gophers’ 48 points in the paint.
In Saturday’s 81-71 victory over Penn State, Lynch had a career-high 11 blocks with zero fouls. The 6-10 junior avoided foul trouble again for most of the game Thursday, with one foul until midway through the second half. Lynch finished with 11 points, six rebounds and six blocks in 28 minutes.
With 6½ minutes left in the game, Dupree McBrayer threw a behind-the-back pass to Murphy for an emphatic two-hand dunk to ignite the crowd with a 79-58 lead.
“It was just a big momentum thing,” Murphy said. “I just wanted to get our guys going, get some energy going with the crowd.”
With starting wing Akeem Springs suffering from back pain, McBrayer came off the bench to score 12 of his 16 points in the second half.
It was senior night for graduate transfer Springs and former walk-on Darin Haugh. Both got to thank fans for their support after the game, but they repeated what Pitino said about the season being far from over.
The Gophers’ goal now going into Sunday’s regular-season finale at struggling Wisconsin — losers of five of six after falling at home to Iowa on Thursday — is to secure a double-bye and a top-four seed in next week’s Big Ten tournament in Washington, D.C.
“We’ve got to beat Wisconsin,” Mason said. “We’re all just clicking right now. Luckily that we started clicking in February and March.”