While the Gophers were going through a morning shootaround before their late November ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup at Boston College, Dupree McBrayer was taking a five-hour train ride from his home in Queens, N.Y., to get to the game.
McBrayer would arrive in time to play, but his mind was elsewhere that night during Minnesota’s first loss of the season.
Richard Pitino told reporters after the game how much coaches, teammates and friends were trying to be strong for McBrayer, who went scoreless for only the second time in three years. Nobody outside of the program knew just how much the senior guard and co-captain was going through.
“It was very sad, because I came from New York City to see my mom,” McBrayer said Tuesday. “I wasn’t able to think straight.”
McBrayer’s mother, Tayra McFarlane, didn’t have much longer to live. She died from cancer less than a week later.
McBrayer remains thankful for that last visit with her. “Thanks to Coach P,” McBrayer said. “He let me go one last time.”
In eight of the nine games after Boston College, McBrayer scored in double figures — the one exception being an emotional victory vs. Nebraska two days after his mother died. As much as he’s gone through in the past month, McBrayer has still been the most consistent all-around player for the Gophers (13-3, 3-2 Big Ten), who will lean on his leadership again Wednesday at Illinois (4-12, 0-5).
“He’s quietly playing great ever since his mother’s funeral,” Pitino said. “What he went through there was obviously very tough. Since then, he’s playing at a higher level and with a greater purpose than we all probably know.”
Since McFarlane’s death on Dec. 3, the Gophers have worn patches on their jerseys to honor her. McBrayer returned to the team after missing only one game, motivated to make his mother proud. In his first game back after her funeral, a Dec. 21 victory against North Carolina A&T, McBrayer acknowledged there were “a lot of emotions running through my head.”
“I know she’s looking down on me,” he said. “She would want me to keep going, keep fighting. That’s all I can do for her.”
Not only is McBrayer giving the Gophers a much-needed outside shooting threat, but he’s also defending and distributing.
In Saturday’s 88-70 victory against Rutgers, McBrayer nailed three of the U’s six three-pointers in the first half to keep the Scarlet Knights from focusing on leading scorer Amir Coffey.
As much as McBrayer looked for his own shot, he also made sure the ball moved and kept feeding Coffey when he was heating up in the second half with 21 of his game-high 29 points. McBrayer finished with his first career double-double: 15 points and a career-best 10 assists, with only one turnover.
“When we get out and run, everybody has fun, everybody gets their moments,” McBrayer said. “Amir loves to run on the break, so you just get it to him and he finishes.”
In the past six games, McBrayer is averaging 13.5 points on 41 percent three-point shooting and 3.5 assists, but his biggest contribution might be on defense. He’s averaging 1.5 steals during that stretch, including two critical takeaways he turned into layups at Wisconsin. His dunk with a minute left sealed the 59-52 Jan. 3 win, the Gophers’ first victory in Madison since 2009.
As much as the Gophers are playing for their seniors to end their careers strong, McBrayer says “this season is for my mom.”
There’s rarely a moment, he says, when he’s not thinking of her. She was a single mom who worked as an assistant prison warden at Rikers Island for 22 years before retiring last summer. It meant a lot to McBrayer and his family that the Gophers helped raise over $15,000 for McFarlane’s funeral in New York last month. Seven of his U teammates and coaches attended the service, sitting in front next to him.
“To have them there was truly a blessing,” McBrayer said. “It made me realize how much of a family we are.”