COLLEGE PARK, M.D. – After the Gophers’ exciting overtime at Penn State on Monday night, Richard Pitino saw freshman Jamir Harris hug his parents and younger brothers who drove in from New Jersey to see him have a big game on his 20th birthday.
The guard was averaging 1.2 points and eight minutes in Big Ten play, but he scored a career-high 16 points, including a team-best 10 in overtime, in a 95-84 victory.
A positive attitude and consistency in practice made the Gophers basketball coach go with Harris in the starting lineup for a spark against the Nittany Lions.
“He is a worker,” Pitino said. “It does not matter if he doesn’t play a second or if he plays 36 minutes. He is going to have a great attitude, and he is going to work. That’s what I love about him, and that’s why I gave him the start.”
Freshman guard Isaiah Washington had started a few times this season, so he seemed the most likely insert Pitino would make after three consecutive losses. Instead, Monday’s decision to start Harris took a lot of people by surprise, including Penn State.
“He deserves success,” Pitino said. “Sometimes it takes longer than others.”
The Gophers (14-6, 3-4) play the second game of a three-game road trip Thursday at Maryland (14-6, 3-4).
Nate Mason, Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer combined for 71 points at Penn State. But having another scorer on the floor was a factor in Pitino’s decision to start Harris. The loss of guard Amir Coffey because of a shoulder injury and center Reggie Lynch to suspension the past four games meant 25 points per game vanished from the starting lineup.
Harris averages 3.1 points but ranks second on the Gophers in three-point shooting percentage at 40.9. He hit 3-for-6 from beyond the arc Monday, including 2-for-2 in overtime. Harris had the confidence to hit them under pressure.
“I played with him in high school; I knew he would break out,” said McBrayer, a junior guard. “Once he got his chance, he just proved it. There are some things he has to do better defensive-wise, but he’s a freshman. Just like all freshman, he’s going to grasp things and get better.”
McBrayer and Harris were teammates for one year at The Patrick School in Hillsdale, N.J., during the 2013-14 season. Harris was only a freshman then, but he was already one of the team’s best shooters.
As a senior last season, Harris earned all-state honors while leading the Celtics to a nonpublic school state title and Tournament of Champions crown, a tournament to determine New Jersey’s top team.
Washington received most of the attention as a four-star recruit, New York prep player of the year and “Jelly Fam” founder, but Harris quietly felt he was going to make an impact as a freshman.
“I never get out of character or act in the slightest way cocky,” Harris said earlier this season. “I really take pride in having a positive impact on people. It motivates me to want to work harder and continue to be successful. My determination, the impact of others on me and my family makes me want to be more successful, stay levelheaded and have tunnel vision on my task at hand to be a great college player.”
Harris’ father, Laquan, is a former Rutgers football player who has high expectations for his son’s college basketball career. But Pitino never heard from him about his son’s inconsistent playing time.
Pitino sent a text to Harris’ dad after seeing them embrace following the Penn State victory: “Really happy for you guys [that] you had that moment,” it said.
“Never was it, ‘It’s about time you played my son,’ ” Pitino said. “Jamir is one of those guys who his support system is telling him the right things. He understands, it’s a process.”