It had been three years since North Florida made the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history — and that trip to the Big Dance ended without any type of Cinderella story.
Tuesday night, the Ospreys arrived at Williams Arena looking to pull off one of their biggest upsets in years, even shocking Gophers fans with a lead just before halftime.
Jordan Murphy’s putback at the buzzer kept the Gophers from trailing at the end of the first half, but it was a dogfight until the end.
Murphy’s 20 points and 18 rebounds and Isaiah Washington’s 14 points and career-high 13 assists helped Minnesota escape with an 80-71 victory against North Florida in front of an announced 9,212.
The Gophers (9-2) struggled with their offensive rhythm all night, shooting 39 percent from the floor, including 1-for-15 from three-point range. They had to play without senior guard Dupree McBrayer, who missed the game to be in New York with family after his mother lost a battle with cancer last week. Seven players and the coaching staff will join him Wednesday to attend the funeral of Tayra McFarlane.
“I was concerned about that game,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “To be able to get that win without Dupree and without [forward Eric Curry recovering from knee surgery], and to find a way was great.”
Looking for a spark, Pitino started senior Brock Stull, but it was Washington’s lift off the bench that helped replace McBrayer’s production. The sophomore point guard and former four-star recruit from Harlem hadn’t been able to find consistency this season following an 11-assist performance in the Nov. 6 opener against Omaha.
His only double-figure scoring game this season before Tuesday was with 15 points in a victory over Oklahoma State in the U.S. Bank Stadium Classic on Nov. 30. Washington played a season-low five minutes in Saturday’s victory over Arkansas State, but he appeared to learn his lesson about having more of a pass-first approach in the next game.
“I just had to gain the coach’s trust, and hopefully I did that tonight,” said Washington, who did not commit a turnover in 30 minutes Tuesday. “I feel like when I get an assist, I just feel more confident with my game.”
Washington, who had eight assists in the first half, zipped a pass to Daniel Oturu for a dunk to give the Gophers their biggest lead at 60-52 with just under nine minutes to play in the second. A little more than two minutes later, Washington was fouled off a steal and hit a free throw for a 65-59 lead.
North Florida (4-6) wouldn’t go down quietly, though. The Ospreys, who last upset a Big Ten team in November 2015 at Illinois, cut it to 65-64 with 5:12 to play after J.T. Escobar’s three-pointer and two free throws from Brian Coffey II.
The Gophers finally pulled away with a 9-2 run. Washington’s jumper in the lane gave them a three-point lead and was their first field goal in more than four minutes, and he finished the run by driving through two defenders for another basket.
Amir Coffey had 18 points, while Oturu had 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Gophers, who hit 19 of 27 free throws in the second half and held a 52-35 rebounding advantage.
“North Florida is not a bad team by any stretch of the imagination,” Murphy said. “We underestimated them a tiny bit and that reflected in the score.”