Reggie Lynch lay on his back looking at the ceiling from the old Southdale YMCA gym floor.
Basketball sneakers screeched around him, the other fourth-graders trying to avoid his lanky frame. He didn’t budge.
Lynch lay there sulking because his team was losing by 40 points.
“The other kids ran past him back and forth,” Lynch’s mother, Marlene, remembered. “I was so embarrassed.”
That was the last time Lynch, now a 22-year-old junior center for the Gophers, remembers giving up.
The tall awkward kid on the Y floor grew up to be Edina High School’s standout big man, helping lead the Hornets to the state tournament. Four years later, he is a game-changing inside presence the Gophers have lacked under coach Richard Pitino.
This 6-10, 260-pound Lynch, key to the U’s turnaround hopes, gives Pitino and fans reason to think this team will contend in the Big Ten after going 12-1 in nonconference play.
“Reggie from a down-low standpoint just brings a whole new dimension,” Pitino said.
There were even more reasons, though, to think this season never would happen.
Lynch was a late bloomer in high school, passed over by the Gophers and other major schools.
He went to Illinois State, where he lost a close mentor when an assistant coach died in a 2015 plane crash.
He transferred home, sat out last season because of NCAA transfer rules and went through shoulder surgery in February and minor knee surgery in late September.
He recovered from both injuries, but in between came a sexual assault investigation in May involving a 19-year-old woman. After a summerlong suspension and university investigation, Lynch was reinstated in September. The decision was cleared by the school’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office — the same group at the center of the recent controversy involving 10 Gophers football players.
Not looking back, Lynch has become arguably Pitino’s most important player in a surprising season, one in which the Gophers already have won four more games than they did in all of 2015-16. Their revival goes up against Michigan State in Tuesday night’s Big Ten opener.
“Adversity in general, no matter what it is, can make you better if you overcome it,” Lynch said. “You can’t really let injuries hinder you, as well as the [suspension] that happened this summer. You would think I would be consumed with all of the adversity, but once you step on the court it all goes away. You just work toward your goal, and that’s basically what I’ve done.”
The closest the Gophers came to their first defeat at home this season was on Dec. 6, when they were tied 61-61 in a game against the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
After a teammate got beat off the dribble, Lynch hustled across the lane and blocked an NJIT layup attempt with his left hand. It was his fourth swat of the half.
Ten seconds later, he ran the floor, received a pass in stride and hammered down a dunk to give his team the lead for good in a 74-68 victory.
“Reggie blocking shots and also making post moves scoring the ball, it takes a lot off the guards,” said junior guard Nate Mason, the Gophers’ leading scorer. “It’s just reassuring to have [Lynch] down there.”
Lynch is tied for the Big Ten lead with 3.3 blocks per game. His averages of 8.5 points and 6.2 rebounds are good but not star-caliber for starting centers in the league.
But through his first 12 games, he leads the nation in a key statistic. His defensive box plus/minus is 12.1, meaning the Gophers on average led by a dozen points when he was in the game. Lynch also ranks second in the NCAA in shot block percentage (16.7), after finishing first nationally in that category in 2014 and ’15 at Illinois State.
“He changes the game in a variety of ways, some of which you can’t really track with analytics,” Big Ten Network analyst Jon Crispin said. “But you win by more points when he’s on the floor, and that’s all that needs to be said.”
Parts of Lynch’s game are a work in progress, such as free-throw shooting, his habit of getting into foul trouble and what coaches and teammates call a very unorthodox shot that leaves the ball diving toward the hoop with little spin.
“Since I was born, I’ve been trying to adjust that,” Lynch joked. “But it doesn’t really change.”
‘Missed on this guy’
Former Edina coach Pat Dorsey described Lynch’s game before his senior season of 2012-13 as “very raw,” but with glimpses of potential. Tubby Smith and his staff couldn’t see past the raw part. Still, the Gophers coaching staff at the time showed enough interest to meet on an unofficial campus visit with Lynch, then 6-9 and 230 pounds, during his junior year.
“Reggie probably would not have considered anything else had he been offered,” said his mother, Marlene, a 6-2 former volleyball standout from New York City. “He probably would’ve gone there [to Minnesota] from Day 1.”
Lynch made little noise his first two years of high school at Bloomington Jefferson, where his uncles and father won state titles in the 1980s. He transferred to Edina and finished his prep career as arguably the state’s top senior post player.
He and teammate Graham Woodward led Edina to 10 consecutive victories going into the school’s first state tournament appearance in 25 years. The Hornets defeated Hopkins for the first time in 20 years that season, doing it three times, and they finished third in the state overall.
“In the back of my mind, I thought he was a midmajor guy,” Dorsey said. “Then I said, ‘Oh my gosh, Reggie’s dominant. Reggie’s there.’ … It was the first [time] where I thought, ‘Gophers, you missed out on this guy.’ And every other big Division I school, you missed on him.”
Lynch’s uncle, Kevin, who played for the Gophers under Clem Haskins and in the NBA, saw major growth in his nephew, too.
“He was dunking on guys and blocking shots,” Kevin Lynch said. “He played that same way the rest of the second half of his senior year at Edina. Had Reggie not signed early and Minnesota kept talking to him and saw him, I think they would’ve offered. They would have had to.”
The highlight of Reggie Lynch’s early college career was a five-block performance that helped Illinois State upset top-seeded and eighth-ranked Wichita State in the Missouri Valley tournament semifinals in 2015.
Lynch was a budding midmajor star at Illinois State, a school he chose because of his strong relationship with Torrey Ward, a young assistant coach who bonded with his family.
A month after Lynch’s big game, Ward and six others were killed in a plane crash just outside of the Illinois State campus after flying back from the NCAA championship game in Indianapolis.
Lynch already had spoken to the coaching staff about releasing him from his scholarship to possibly transfer, and Ward knew he wanted to play for the Gophers.
“Coach Ward being the real dude he was, he talked to me hours before he hopped on the plane going to the game,” Lynch said, getting a little choked up. “He said, ‘Hey man, I love you. I know this is tough for you. You know I want you to be here. But I know how family and home is. If that’s where your heart tells you, take it.’ ”
Already an all-conference player in two seasons with the Redbirds, Lynch wondered if he could handle sitting out a year at Minnesota. He called Woodward, who already redshirted after transferring from Penn State to Drake.
“He was worried about it,” Woodward said. “I told him it was a long year, but you still got to practice and be with the team. ... Going back to Minnesota was good for him, because I know how close he is with his family.”
During workouts and practices, Lynch and Texas A&M transfer Davonte Fitzgerald also became close and vowed to make a difference together after the Gophers struggled with an 8-23 record last season.
In early October, Fitzgerald was lost for the season after suffering his second major knee injury. Lynch cried when heard his transfer buddy would not be on the court with him this season.
The following week, Lynch went through the school’s investigation hearing on the alleged sexual assault case. The EOAA report, obtained by the Star Tribune, stated several times that Lynch used “reasonable” judgment and concluded “Reggie did not violate the University’s sexual assault policy.”
“We went through a very tough time,” Marlene Lynch said. “It really is just a tidbit of the story during his journey. We’re just euphoric to be able to see him play and support him.”
With each step forward, that support comes Lynch’s way from the east end of Williams Arena, a few rows up from the raised floor. The Lynch crew — his parents, uncles, aunt, cousins and brother — attend home games.
They were there for Lynch’s nine blocks in a Nov. 18 victory over St. John’s. They were there when he tied a career high with 18 points and 11 rebounds in a Dec. 11 victory against Northern Illinois.
Lynch left a Gophers game to a standing ovation for the first time ever.
The kid who once laid on the YMCA floor, unwilling to accept a challenge, had brought the Barn to its feet — and he believes there’s more to come.
“Our goal as a team is to make the NCAA tournament and to be one of the best teams that Minnesota has had in years,” Lynch said. “We don’t really think much about the past.”