As little as two and a half weeks ago, Gophers men’s basketball practices were punctuated, often, with coach Richard Pitino yelling three words.
The phrase — “constant mocking” as Pitino described it then — was directed at freshman forward Jordan Murphy, who had the tendency to disappear on the court at times, the coach often lamented.
“I was calling him a Volvo,” Pitino said then. “Told him I wanted him to be a Dodge Ram.”
Five games later, those nicknames have all but disappeared after Murphy once again played star in Minnesota’s 70-52 victory over Chicago State on Wednesday night at Williams Arena. Pitino, meanwhile, is finding new phrases to describe his athletic forward, ones like “all-conference.”
“He’s just doing it on talent alone, and he’s just scratching the surface,” Pitino said. “He wants to win, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change. He is a special kid.
“If he continues to play with that high motor like we talk about, I think he could be an all-conference player [down the road].”
Wednesday, “High-motor Murph” — who is beginning to be recognized as simply “Murph” — again played a huge role in a game in which the Gophers (6-5) lost freshman Kevin Dorsey to injury and struggled to take control early. Murphy scored 12 points, and his career-high 18 rebounds were the most since Trevor Mbakwe corralled the same number against North Dakota State in December of 2012. That helped Minnesota end a three-game skid and avoid suffering four consecutive nonconference losses for only the second time since 1963. It was the fourth double-double in five games for Murphy, who never has started, and that’s just fine by him.
“I’m not here to make demands,” he said. “That’s not me. I’m just here to provide energy whenever I need to and just do whatever Coach asks of me.”
Chicago State (3-9), after hanging with the Gophers all night, still was within 43-37 with 10:54 left in the second half when Murphy instigated Minnesota’s decisive 20-3 run by getting to the foul line. The San Antonio native made only six of 12 free throws, but was a presence throughout, snatching three boards, blocking a shot and grabbing a steal in that span.
“I think a little bit of it is instinctive — just having a knack for getting the ball,” Murphy said. “I think I have a good idea of where a ball is going to go when someone shoots it.”
It was a welcomed change for the sparse announced crowd of 10,175, which saw nothing come easy for the Gophers for most of the night, even against the last-place team in the Western Athletic Conference. Chicago State’s losing streak grew to eight games, and the Cougars haven’t beaten a Division I or Division II team all season.
The Gophers trailed 22-15 in the first half, before a 17-2 run highlighted by eight consecutive points from Murphy gave Minnesota a 32-24 halftime advantage.
The Gophers offense, from the tipoff, was as disjointed as it’s been all season, and it added injury to insult when Dorsey left the game because of a bruised heel after driving to the basket in the first half. Dorsey returned to the sideline on crutches and in a walking boot, and Pitino said later that he would get an MRI to assess any damage on Thursday.
“Hopefully it’s nothing big,” Pitino said. “He landed on it pretty tough. He is a tough kid, and he said he is in pain.”