The crowd in maize and blue in the half-full Crisler Center seemed almost bored, sensing the game was all but over with just under two minutes until halftime. And the Gophers, down 15 to Michigan, were in desperate need of a spark.
Enter Carlos Morris. The 6-5 senior guard took a pass from Kevin Dorsey and launched a three-pointer, then snatched a rebound from a missed Michigan shot on the other end. On the Gophers’ next possession, the ball danced around the perimeter a few times before Morris got his hands on it a second time. He stepped back and launched again, this time from about 25 feet out.
Swish. Morris took a second to strut before running back on defense, a loud expression from a player who is usually pretty quiet on and off the court.
“Finally, we had a senior kind of step up and carry us,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said, sounding relieved. “He did what I thought seniors should do.”
On Wednesday night, that senior leadership helped to inspire one of the Gophers’ best team performances of the season, albeit in yet another loss as they dropped to 6-13 overall and 0-7 in Big Ten play.
In the second half, Morris’ aggressive attack, combined with better rebounding, helped the Gophers hang with Michigan before falling 74-69, their 11th loss in 12 games heading into Saturday night’s home game against Illinois. Afterward, Pitino quickly lauded Morris’ toughness; two days later, Gophers freshman Dupree McBrayer referred to his teammate as “a warrior.”
But the fact that such performances have been the exception rather than the rule is one of the reasons the Gophers have struggled all season, and a big hint behind Pitino’s recent lineup shake-up.
After the Gophers dropped to 0-4 in the conference following a 25-point home loss to Northwestern, Pitino benched both of his seniors, Morris and Joey King, in favor of a starting five featuring three freshmen and two sophomores. Three games later, that’s still the case, a scenario that has affected Morris — who is so quiet Pitino said he sometimes has a hard time hearing him — perhaps more than he has let on.
“I’m the kind of guy that wants to start,” Morris said. “I feel like I should be starting. It’s just an adjustment.”
Morris also gets it. He’s not pouting when he says that but is looking at the situation through a matter-of-fact lens.
“Before he switched the lineup, we started off getting down [big early] and when he switched the lineup we’ve kind of been in the game early on,” Morris said. “It’s kind of been working a little bit.
“It proves I need to play a little better.”
Most who have watched the Gophers for the past two seasons realize Morris, while flawed, has some of the better offensive talent on the roster. Since transferring from Chipola College in Florida before last season, he has had some big games, including a 20-point performance at Michigan State last February, the Gophers’ most recent regular-season conference victory.
This season, he has scored in double digits 10 times, including Wednesday’s 14-point, nine-rebound performance.
“He’s never scared,” Pitino said. “I mean, he’s never scared. He played some of his best games on the road … and that’s what you need of leadership — just being fearless.”
But almost as often this season — nine times — Morris has failed to score more than eight points. Pitino has yanked him for turnovers and taking bad shots.
As much as anything, the youthful Gophers need Morris to more consistently be the one taking the big shots when the team is struggling and panic starts to set in. That veteran guidance, the youngsters know, speaks louder than words.
“That’s somebody to turn to,” McBrayer said. “We’re not looking around saying, ‘Ah man, what are we going to do now?’ We know who’s going to want the ball, who’s going to want to take the big shot, who’s going to want to win the game for us.
“I think as freshmen, some of us are going to really learn from that.”