Trying to reach out to students before Wednesday night’s game, Richard Pitino surprised a University of Minnesota economics class with Goldy the mascot, the marching band and team captain Jordan Murphy.
The Gophers fourth-year men’s basketball coach has been eager to showcase his new and improved team. But with season-ticket sales down after last season’s struggles, attendance was less than 8,000 for the second consecutive game Wednesday.
The best way to attract fans might be just to keep winning, which the Gophers did behind Murphy’s 18 points and 12 rebounds in an 80-56 victory over Mount St. Mary’s in front of an announced crowd of 7,940 at Williams Arena.
“That’s something we have to earn,” Murphy said. “The more we win, of course, the more people are going to come. The more we start playing hard, giving more and more effort every game, the crowds will come.
‘‘We’re just worried about giving each other energy, feeding off each other’s enthusiasm.”
The Gophers, who play host to St. John’s in the Gavitt Tipoff Games on Friday, improved to 3-0 to open the season for the first time since Pitino’s initial year in 2013-14.
Minnesota led 37-29 at halftime but struggled to find rhythm early when Pitino used his bench more often than the first two games.
A seven-man rotation turned into 11 players seeing the floor in the first half.
“I thought I subbed too much in the first half,” Pitino said. “That kind of screwed it up a little bit. I probably shouldn’t have done that, but the most important thing is we got the win.”
Mount St. Mary’s (0-3) cut it to 49-42 after Junior Robinson’s three-pointer with 13:35 left in the second half. But the Gophers used a 20-1 run to pull away, sparked by six consecutive points from Murphy, including back-to-back dunks.
After his scoring average dropped from 11.6 points last season to 8.5 in two games this year, Murphy seemed due for a breakout performance. He had his first double-double in an 84-67 victory Monday against Texas-Arlington, but the 6-6 sophomore shot only 2-for-9 from the field.
On Wednesday, Murphy was more efficient, shooting 8-for-9 on mostly putbacks and dunks. After a slow start, he had eight consecutive points for the Gophers from late in the first half to early in the second to extend the lead to 39-29.
Newcomers Reggie Lynch and Eric Curry combined for only 14 points Wednesday, but their presence has relieved pressure from Murphy this year.
“It takes a lot of the load off of me,” Murphy said. “It takes some getting used to, but it’s really a blessing.”
The biggest concern on the night for Murphy was free-throw shooting. He shot only 2-for-7 for the game, adding to the team’s overall poor showing at the foul line (14-for-23). But the Gophers were 57 percent from the field and had a 46-25 rebounding edge.
Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer each scored 13 points. Amir Coffey and Akeem Springs added 10 points each for the Gophers, who are nearing the end of their first stretch of three games in five days in a nontournament setting since 2005.
Mount St. Mary’s, now 0-18 all-time against Big Ten opponents, wasn’t exactly an attractive opponent for fans, even with the 5-5 Robinson scoring 16 points and putting on a dunk show in warmups.
Pitino hopes the first nationally televised game for the Gophers this season on Friday will bring a larger crowd. He was pleased with how students responded to his classroom appearance, but he knows it will take a lot more winning to fill up the Barn again.
“We know we’ve got to earn everybody’s trust and respect back,” he said. “That’s something we’re willing to do. We don’t shy away from that opportunity.”