NEW YORK – A few minutes into Wednesday night’s game, Gophers coach Richard Pitino called a timeout with his team scoreless in the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament opener against Rutgers.
Fans a few rows behind the basket at Madison Square Garden started to yell, “We want Jelly Fam! We want Jelly Fam! We want Jelly Fam!”
Not that he heard them, but Pitino signaled guard Isaiah Washington to check into the game for the first time that night in front of his home state crowd.
Washington, a Harlem native, was the top recruit in Minnesota’s 2017 class out of St. Raymond’s High School in the Bronx. The expectations, fair or not, were higher than any U incoming freshman in recent memory.
There was a time this season when Washington was looked at as a potential bust, but he has finished the season strong. The 6-1 former New York Mr. Basketball averaged 12.8 points and nearly three assists for the last nine games of the season, including a team-best 18 points Wednesday.
“I definitely learned a lot this year playing with an older group of guys,” Washington said in the locker room after the game. “They pushed me every day in practice, trying to make me get better. Now we got to just look forward to next season.”
Some criticism started on Washington after he shot 6-for-17 from the field in his first career start in an 86-81 loss to Miami (Fla.) on Nov. 29. There was speculation Washington was unhappy in Minnesota after he played only 14 combined minutes during the Gophers’ three-game East Coast road trip, which included scoring three points in five minutes in a 67-49 loss against Ohio State at MSG.
But Washington’s season turned around after his practice habits improved. His season high was a 26-point performance in a 76-73 overtime loss at Michigan on Feb. 3.
“I really think my body got physically right,” Washington said. “Just making the right decisions on the court and just watching [senior Nate Mason] play. I tried to mimic after him.”
Senior starters Mason and Bakary Konate were battling the flu entering Wednesday’s game.
Konate, a 6-11 center, played under the weather in Sunday’s 84-60 loss at Purdue and missed practice the next day. Mason was resting from a hip injury and sitting out of practice when he got sick Tuesday.
The players weren’t the only ones suffering. Gophers strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown also caught the flu before the team left for New York on Tuesday night.