Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason are proving to be two of the best players in the Big Ten during the Gophers’ five-game winning streak.
But their backups, Eric Curry and Dupree McBrayer, have shown they can be just as valuable to the basketball team’s success.
McBrayer and Curry combined for all 27 of Minnesota’s bench points in Sunday’s 83-78 overtime victory against Michigan.
McBrayer, a 6-5 sophomore guard, broke out of a slump and adjusted to being a reserve after starting the first 19 games. Curry, a 6-9 freshman, is as talented as any frontcourt player on the roster, but he excels at doing the little things at the end of games.
“You always have to stay ready,” McBrayer said. “You always have to be ready to go. I think the bench is really grasping that.”
The Gophers (20-7, 8-6) are going into Wednesday’s game at No. 22 Maryland (22-5, 10-4) feeling confident they can rely on their depth to win games.
Several starters have experienced highs and lows the past two weeks. But Richard Pitino’s team just keeps finding ways to pull out close games with different players contributing.
Murphy, a sophomore forward, is averaging 18 points, 15 rebounds and shooting 62 percent in the past four games. Mason, a junior guard, is averaging 17.5 points, 5.3 assists and shooting 89 percent (40-for-45) from the foul line in the past eight games.
But there isn’t much of a drop-off when Pitino replaces Murphy and Mason with Curry and McBrayer. Both players can score, defend and play multiple positions. Curry plays power forward and center. McBrayer plays point guard and shooting guard.
“I always like having guys who can play multiple positions,” Pitino said. “That provides versatility for us.”
McBrayer is the team’s best offensive spark off the bench, averaging 10.4 points. He had a six-game stretch scoring under double figures before Sunday. But the New York native credited Pitino for encouraging him, even when deciding Akeem Springs should start in his place.
“Coach always texts me, always telling me to ‘stay positive’ and ‘you’re going to get through this,’ ” McBrayer said. “He really believes in me. So with that, I tried to keep working and try to do the best I could to help the team.”
Springs has scored just 11 points on 4-for-20 shooting combined in his past two games. But McBrayer picked up the slack Sunday off the bench, with a Big Ten season-high 15 points, including 7-for-8 shooting from the free-throw line.
Two of Curry’s three double-figure scoring performances in Big Ten play have come in the past three games, including 11 points in a Feb. 11 win at Rutgers.
The Gophers likely don’t win without Curry’s timely plays in victories over Indiana and Michigan.
Springs was the hero in the 75-74 win last week against Indiana after making the game-winning layup off the glass with 3.2 seconds left. But Curry beat the Hoosiers’ 6-foot-10 center Thomas Bryant to Springs’ missed jumper, tipping the ball back to Springs for the last shot. Curry’s steal with about a minute left in the game also put the Gophers in position to take the lead.
Starting center Reggie Lynch had 11 points and eight rebounds in 13 minutes against Michigan. But Pitino went with Curry in the middle the final 9:46 in regulation and the entire 5-minute overtime.
Curry, who scored all of his 12 points in the second half, had just one foul while tying a season-high with 35 minutes. Pitino stuck with his young big man because he didn’t want Lynch to foul out for the ninth time this season.
“He makes winning plays,” Pitino said. “Eric is going to be a terrific player in this league.”