PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The Gophers getting off to a fast start on the road Monday was a sign of their mental toughness — not letting a hostile environment get them rattled.
So when Nate Mason’s three-pointer capped a 12-0 run to open the first half at Providence he knew they were in control no matter what happened next.
The 14th-ranked Gophers ended up trailing at halftime, but a late second-half surge and Jordan Murphy’s 23 points and 14 rebounds led to an 86-74 victory over the Friars at Dunkin’ Donuts Center.
Despite their ranking, the Gophers were 3½-point underdogs entering the Gavitt Tipoff Games matchup. But they silenced their critics in an emotional return to Richard Pitino’s alma mater and the state where he started his coaching career.
“To get out of here with a win was terrific,” said Pitino, who said he spent some time after morning shootaround Monday back on campus reminiscing about his college days. “We just showed great poise in a very, very tough environment, and that’s what good teams do.”
Following his 35-point, 15-rebound performance in Friday’s opener vs. South Carolina-Upstate, Murphy had 17 points on 8-for-10 shooting in the second half against Providence. Nate Mason also finished with 17 points for the Gophers (2-0), who showed how valuable experience could be this season.
After enduring a five-game losing streak last January in Big Ten play, Minnesota found ways to win coming from behind and finish strong. That led to an eight-game winning streak and Pitino’s first NCAA tournament appearance. All five starters were back this year — and they combined for 76 points Monday.
“Nate started to remind us that we’ve been here before,” Murphy said. “We won at Purdue and Northwestern last year. This was a good test for our young guys, but Nate just kept in my ear about being aggressive.”
Trailing Providence by five with 14:47 left in the second half, the Gophers used a 23-9 run to pull away from one of the Big East’s top teams. It all started with an off-balance layup by Amir Coffey, who had 15 points, followed by a Murphy dunk. Murphy later slammed again to quiet the crowd, and Coffey nailed back-to-back three-pointers for a 72-63 lead at the seven-minute mark.
Providence cut it to single digits once more, but Murphy scored on consecutive baskets, including a spinning layup for a 12-point advantage at 5:48.
The Friars also had five starters back from an NCAA tournament team. They were unranked and played with a chip on their shoulder, taking a 39-36 halftime lead after falling behind 12-2 in the first four minutes Monday.
The Gophers shot 61 percent in the second half to pull ahead, but not without some drama on the court and in the stands.
Starting center Reggie Lynch picked up his third foul less than two minutes into the second half. Lynch, who had 12 points, five rebounds and four blocks, wouldn’t return to the game until eight minutes later.
Backup posts Davonte Fitzgerald and Bakary Konate, who are trying to replace injured big man Eric Curry, had four fouls each with just under 15 minutes remaining to put Providence in the bonus.
A heated exchange even broke out between a Minnesota fan and a Providence fan who were kicked out of the arena late in the game, but Mason made sure his teammates were calm and cool on the floor.
“We’ve been through some rough seasons and some good seasons,” he said. “I just tried to keep everybody together and made sure they stayed poised. They answered really well.”