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Gophers up for challenge against Michigan's 3-point shooting big men

Reggie Lynch was tossing up three-pointers with a manager rebounding when Gophers coach Richard Pitino walked into Williams Arena before practice one Saturday morning in the fall.

“What are you doing?” Pitino yelled down to his 6-foot-10 starting center.

Lynch laughed. And he proceeded to take a few steps closer to the basket to practice his free throws.

Minnesota’s post players haven’t taken or made many three-pointers this year. Lynch has zero attempts. Backup center Bakary Konate is 0-for-1. Starting power forward Jordan Murphy is 4-for-25. Backup forward Eric Curry is 5-for-25.

“I would like coach to give me some freedom out at the three-point line,” Lynch joked Saturday. “I mean, obviously, I would just like to be proficient in the paint.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Michigan’s big men are nearly leading their team in three-point shooting. Starting posts Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson, both stand 6-10, shoot 32-for-76 (42.1 percent) and 25-for-65 (38.5 percent) from three-point range this season, respectively. Even backup center Mark Donnal is shooting 6-for-13 from deep.

“Just seeing they have (big) guys who have freedom to shoot threes on their team makes it a challenge,” Lynch said. “It’s just something we’ve got to hone in on, make sure we take their strengths away.”

Minnesota ranks first in the Big Ten and 10th nationally in three-point shooting defense (opponents shoot just 30 percent). Only South Carolina (28.1), Louisville (28.4) and Duke (29.8) have opponents shooting a lower percentage from long distance among major conference teams.

Michigan ranks third in the conference in three-point shooting percentage (.384) and second in three-pointers overall (243) and per game (9.3). So something has to give Sunday.

“They shoot the ball at five positions,” Pitino said of Michigan. “And when they’re hot, they’re really tough. So we’ve got to be as on point defensively as we can be.”

Konate, who started at center before Lynch was eligible this season, compared Michigan’s sharp-shooting big men to former Wisconsin star Frank Kaminsky, who is a 7-footer with deep range.

“My freshman year, Kaminsky was one of the examples who can shoot outside and inside,” Konate said. “I really enjoyed seeing how he played his game. I even started working more on my shooting.”

In Wednesday’s 75-74 win against Indiana, the Gophers faced 6-10 center Thomas Bryant, who is 20-for-51 from three-point this season. Bryant scored just eight points on 3-for-14 shooting from the field, including 0-for-3 from beyond the arc.

Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan is probably the best three-point shooting post player in the Big Ten. He shoots 28-for-59 from three this season (47.5 percent). He had 28 points in a loss Jan. 1 against Minnesota, but he was 0-for-3 from long range.

If Lynch can’t shoot them, he wants to block them.

He has two blocked threes this season on Swanigan and Iowa guard Peter Jok.

“It’ll be a change of pace to be out on the perimeter to use some lateral quickness and defend those threes,” Lynch, Big Ten’s block leader, said. “I’m hoping to get another three-point block. So we’ll see.”

MORE BALANCE: Pitino was obviously pleased to get the victory Wednesday, but he said junior guard Nate Mason scoring 30 points on 8-for-19 shooting was "not a formula for success."

Mason, who had his second 30-point game this season, ended up taking more shots than usual since his fellow backcourt mates were either struggling or not shooting.

Akeem Springs hit the game-winning basket, but he had just four points on 2-for-13 shooting. Dupree McBrayer averages 11 points, but he had just two points on 0-for-4 field goals. Amir Coffey had a solid second half with 17 points, but he went scoreless in the first half.

"Akeem can't shoot like he did," Pitino said. "Dupree has got to play better. We cannot rely on Nate to score like that. We've got to have better balance."

Postgame: Nate Mason having best stretch of his Gophers career

Nate Mason was the reason the Gophers didn’t find themselves trailing at halftime in Wednesday’s 75-74 win against Indiana.

The other Gophers were 5-for-21 from the field, but Mason had 18 of his game-high 30 points in the first half.

The 6-foot-2 junior guard became the first Minnesota player since Vincent Grier in 2004-05 to have two 30-point games in the same season. He had a career-high 31 points and 11 assists in a 91-82 overtime win Jan. 1 at Purdue.

“This whole week of practice after that last game, my shot has been feeling great,” Mason said. “My cousin came to town. It was good to see his face. I hadn’t seen him in three or four  years. He came to the game, and I wanted to play well for  him. I guess it was a little good-luck charm.”

Akeem Springs joked: “We need to have his cousin come to all the games.”

But Mason's play has been more than just about a good-luck charm. 

During the four-game winning streak, Mason is averaging 19.8 points per game, four assists and just 1.3 turnovers in 35.3 minutes. He’s also shooting an impressive 32-for-34 from the foul line.

Mason is clearly the Gophers’ go-to guy. And Springs was looking for him when the play broke down in the waning seconds Wednesday night. He couldn’t find his hot teammate. No problem, though, since Springs hit the game-winning shot after his miss was tipped back by Eric Curry.

“I was happy it went in,” Mason said with a smile. “When he took the shot, I know it was a tough shot. I knew he was going to get it on the rim or make the basket. I was satisfied with it.”

Indiana used 12-0 run to take a 22-12 lead in the first half after James Blackmon Jr.’s three-pointer with 7:23 left. Reggie Lynch scored on consecutive putbacks to break the scoring drought that lasted nearly 6 1/2 minutes.

But Mason went to work on the Hoosiers. He scored from the foul line, driving to the basket and from three-point range. One jumper he got bumped but still nailed it.

Mason started off Wednesday’s game shooting just 2-for-9 from the field, but he scored 12 points in the last 4:45 of the first half. His two free throws with six seconds left capped a 13-3 run going into halftime with a four-point advantage.

If he kept scoring at that rate, Mason might have ended up with 40 points. But he actually had just one field goal in the final 3:52 of the second half. And his teammates helped finish the game off strong.

Amir Coffey had seven of 17 second-half points in the last 3:31. Jordan Murphy, who finished with 14 points and 15 rebounds, hit two critical free throws with a minute left. Springs’ big shot never would’ve happened if Curry didn’t pick up a crucial offensive rebound and tap the ball to an open teammate on the baseline with 3.2 seconds left.

“We weren’t feeling high on ourselves because we were on a three-game winning streak,” Mason said. “We all came in and worked. And we got better.”

KEEP SPRINGS IN: With about four minutes left, Springs got benched after allowing Blackmon Jr. to nail a three-pointer off a pick-and-roll to put the Gophers down 65-60.

Pitino barked at his senior captain on the sideline, but he had the confidence to put him back in the game down the stretch.

“Coach is always mad at me,” Springs joked. “So that didn’t really get to me. I didn’t think about it honestly. I didn’t think I’m done for the game.”

Springs had his second straight game under double figures scoring with just four points on 2-for-13 shooting. He had averaged 17 points per game in his first five Big Ten starts, but Springs hasn't lost his confidence despite scoring 11 points combined on 5-for-21 shooting the last two games.

“He’s such a confident kid and he works so hard,” Pitino said. “That I’ve got trust in him. He just had an off-shooting night. At the end of the day, he made a basket that won the game. That’s all that matters.”

FOULING OUT: Lynch fouled out for the eighth time in 13 Big Ten games, so at least he’s consistent. But the Gophers’ junior center still managed to block four shots Wednesday night. Lynch now has 81 blocks this season. He only needs eight more to tie Gophers legend Randy Breuer’s single-season program record of 89.

HIGH-MOTOR MURPH: Murphy is averaging 18.7 points, 15 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in his last three games. He's also shooting 64.7 percent from the field (22-for-34) during that span. These are amazing numbers considering that the 6-6 sophomore was averaging about six points and five rebounds during an eight-game stretch earlier in Big Ten play.

TV Listings

Local Schedule

< >
  • Wisconsin at Gophers women's hockey

    3:07 pm

  • Michigan at Gophers men's basketball

    6 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Chicago at Wild

    7 pm on NBCSN, 100.3-FM

  • Minnesota United FC at Toronto FC (preseason)

    2 pm

  • Gophers men's basketball at Maryland

    7:30 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Purdue at Gophers women's basketball

    8 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Tampa Bay at Twins (spring training)

    6:05 pm on 96.3-FM

  • Dallas at Timberwolves

    7 pm on FSN, ESPN, 830-AM

  • Wisconsin at Gophers men's hockey

    7 pm on FSN PLUS, 1500-AM

  • Twins at Boston (spring training)

    12:05 pm on 96.3-FM

  • Penn State at Gophers men's basketball

    2 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Wisconsin at Gophers men's hockey

    7 pm on FSN PLUS, 1500-AM

  • Timberwolves at Houston

    8 pm on FSN, 830-AM

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