The 10-day break for finals came at just the right time for the Gophers men’s basketball team.
Just when players seemed to be losing confidence during arguably the toughest early schedule in five seasons under Richard Pitino, they found their identity again Thursday night.
After struggling to pull away early, the Gophers turned up their defensive pressure in the second half en route to a convincing 77-63 victory over Oral Roberts in front of an announced 11,234 at Williams Arena.
“We can’t think we’re just going to outscore all these teams,” Pitino said. “I wrote on the board: What is our identity? It was very clear what our identity was last year. We don’t have one right now. We can’t be the team that thinks we can put up 90 points on teams. We’ve got to be able to defend.”
It was the second consecutive victory for the Gophers (10-3) after back-to-back road losses to Nebraska and Arkansas dropped them out of the Top 25. But for the first time in weeks, Pitino’s team felt encouraged about the way it played on both ends of the floor.
Oral Roberts (4-11) was held to 36 percent shooting in the second half, which included going 1-for-12 in a game-changing 10-minute stretch. The Golden Eagles also shot only 6-for-19 from three-point range.
“Practices during the break were really helpful in focusing and keying in on playing well on defense,” said Jordan Murphy, who had 17 points and 10 rebounds to extend his Division I-best streak of consecutive double-doubles to 13 games. “I think we did a much better job than we had in the past this season.”
Amir Coffey scored 15 points and Nate Mason 14 for the Gophers. Isaiah Washington had 12 points off the bench. Michael Hurt’s career-high 10 points came in his first career start, replacing Dupree McBrayer, out because of a lower left leg injury.
Pitino said McBrayer’s injury wasn’t to the same leg as the infection that caused him to miss the Nov. 29 loss to Miami (Fla.). He could return Saturday against Florida Atlantic but remains day-to-day.
In their previous game, a 68-67 victory over Drake on Dec. 11, the Gophers struggled defensively, and Williams Arena fans even booed in disappointment with the team down at halftime. Minnesota needed all of Murphy’s 24-point, 18-rebound effort that night, but Thursday the junior forward got a little more help on the offensive end.
The Gophers led 38-34 at halftime before Chris Miller, who finished with 18 points, made it a one-point deficit for Oral Roberts two minutes into the second half. But the Gophers followed by going on a 23-4 run, led by 11 consecutive points from Murphy and Coffey.
Coffey’s steal and two-handed dunk in transition ignited the crowd and fueled the run. Murphy’s floater a minute later put his team up 52-40 at the 14:18 mark of the second half.
But the highlight of the game was Washington connecting with Hurt on the break for a dunk over a defender at the nine-minute mark. Mason’s three followed to make it 64-44.
“I think we started to get comfortable against their matchup zone and moved the ball a lot quicker,” Hurt said. “Defensively, we started to rebound the ball a lot better than the first half.”