Richard Pitino knows if the Gophers want to reach their goals of becoming an NCAA tournament team this season, they need Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy to perform consistently like two of the best players in the Big Ten.
Murphy and Coffey weren’t aggressive enough at times in Minnesota’s first home loss to Maryland earlier in the week, but they came with a different mentality Saturday.
Coffey scored 29 points and Murphy had 15 points and 14 rebounds in an 88-70 victory against Rutgers in front of 10,837 at Williams Arena.
“We need that,” Pitino said. “I told both Murphy and Amir, ‘both of you guys, let’s go.’ They need to be very, very assertive. Murph needs to be confident getting to the foul line, because he’s really good at that. Amir is playing like one of the better players in the league right now.”
Coffey had 21 points in the second half on 7-for-8 shooting from both the field and on free throws for the Gophers (13-3, 3-2), who bounced back after an 82-67 loss Tuesday against Maryland.
Murphy, who is Minnesota’s career rebounding leader, surpassed former Michigan State star Draymond Green for fourth on the Big Ten’s all-time rebounding list. Murphy’s mark of 1,104 is the best since Ohio State’s Herb Williams had 1,111 from 1978-81.
“I think our guys showed great energy and great poise,” Murphy said. “No matter what happened down the stretch, if they made a couple shots, we were able to answer back.”
The Gophers used a 14-1 run in the second half to pull away from the Scarlet Knights (8-7, 1-4), who were coming off an upset over No. 16 Ohio State on Thursday.
Montez Mathis scored on consecutive baskets to pull Rutgers within 63-56 with 8:48 to play. Unlike when the Gophers lost a second-half lead against Maryland unable to score against the zone, they used defense to generate easy offense in transition.
Following Isaiah Washington’s bank-shot three-pointer, Coffey sprinted out and hammered down a dunk on the fastbreak to ignite the crowd and start the late rally.
Murphy and Daniel Oturu had back-to-back blocks leading to a fast-break jelly finger roll from Washington near the seven-minute mark. Coffey slammed again following another three from Washington to make it 77-57 with 5:29 remaining.
“We have good players who can finish and make smart plays,” Coffey said. “That’s what we want to do is get out and run, and go against an unset defense. Anytime we get that opportunity we just try to attack the rim – either make it or get fouled.”
The Gophers had 24 assists (a career-high 10 assists from Dupree McBrayer) on 29 field goals, while also scoring 24 fast-break points. In a much-needed bounce back game at the foul line, Minnesota also shot 20-for-25 after going 9-for-23 in the Maryland loss.
After allowing Maryland to shoot 70 percent in the second half Tuesday, Minnesota’s defense put the game away this time. Rutgers was held to 39 percent shooting in the second half Saturday, including 2-for-8 from three-point range.
Things got heated with just under four minutes left in the second half after Washington threw the ball at Mathis after fouling him. Mathis shoved Washington back. The result was both being ejected, but it didn’t sour an all-around solid effort from the Gophers.
The Scarlet Knights played without leading scorer and rebounder Eugene Omoruyi (knee), but they were still dangerous having upset the Buckeyes without him.
“We did a really, really good job getting over the last game,” Pitino said. “Being mature about it and understanding, it’s not a bigger deal than it needs to be. That’s a tough, tough physical team.”