Gophers senior starters Nate Mason and Reggie Lynch sat for more than 10 minutes in the second half Sunday after picking up four fouls each with their basketball team only leading by single digits.
Normally, that would be reason to panic for coach Richard Pitino. But Minnesota’s defense picked up and Jordan Murphy got going with 21 of his 23 points in the second half en route to a 92-64 victory against Western Carolina in front of 11,107 at Williams Arena.
“It’s hard to get guys to listen when you win by 28,” Pitino joked after the game. “But I think we did some good things in the second half.”
Murphy, the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 25.3 points per game, was held to two points in the first half. It was the second consecutive game the 6-6 junior forward had one basket at halftime, but not many opponents can slow him down for long.
He finished with only four field goals, but Murphy had the most efficient game from the foul line of his career. The San Antonio native made his first seven free throws and finished 15-for-19, the most made free throws since Trevor Mbakwe’s 16 against Fairfield in the 2011-12 season.
Guards Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer added 15 and 14 points, respectively, for the Gophers.
“We did a good job of taking that punch and throwing a couple of our own,” Murphy said. “We did a good job of bouncing back. I think Dupree and Amir were pretty good at keeping us together in the first half.”
The Gophers (4-0) pulled away in the last 10 minutes but they allowed their Southern Conference opponent to hit 7-for-10 on three-pointers in the first half to hang around, even after taking a 42-33 halftime lead.
Western Carolina (1-3) was led by Matt Halvorsen, who had 13 of his team-high 17 points in the first half. The Catamounts committed 20 turnovers, but their 11 three-pointers kept it close throughout.
They sank two three-pointers to open the second half, including when Halvorsen curled around a screen and drilled a jumper while being fouled by Nate Mason. Halvorsen converted the rare four-point play to cut the Gophers’ lead to 45-40.
On the ensuing possession, Mason drove baseline and his defender drew a controversial charging call for a fourth foul. Pitino screamed at the official before sending Mason to the bench, but McBrayer and Murphy responded by scoring six consecutive points, establishing a double-digit lead at 51-40 with 16:27 left.
Two minutes later, Lynch joined Mason, sitting after picking up his fourth foul.
But Murphy’s three-point play on a dunk, Coffey’s spinning layup plus the foul and McBrayer’s jumper highlighted a 28-9 second-half run that made it 73-49 with 7:19 remaining.
Mason finished 13 points and eight rebounds for the Gophers. Lynch had six points, eight rebounds and five blocks in 16 minutes.
Freshman Isaiah Washington got valuable minutes in the second half replacing Mason. Known for his famous “jelly” layup, the New York native had his trademark flashy finger roll blocked twice. But Washington had a season-high 10 points with no turnovers in 18 minutes.
Pitino liked that some of his bench players got more experience Sunday, but not that he was forced into that situation because of foul trouble.
“I’m trying to play the best we can possibly play,” Pitino said. “I didn’t feel like we had great continuity in there, so I was trying to string together some really good minutes. It was that more than anything.”