After waiting 644 days to play in a Gophers uniform again, Eric Curry had trouble sleeping the night before taking the court Sunday afternoon for the first time since a 2017 NCAA tournament loss to Middle Tennessee.
A night owl, Curry texted his head coach at 1:45 in the morning in anticipation of his return.
“I was sleeping,” Richard Pitino said. “So I know he was excited.”
Curry, who was sidelined all of last season and for the first 12 games this year while recovering from two knee surgeries, received resounding cheers from the Williams Arena crowd when he checked into the game against Mount St. Mary’s just under four minutes into the game.
Motivated with Curry back, the Gophers jumped out to a 9-0 lead, but like him they still had to shake off a lot of rust to pull away in a 71-53 victory in front of an announced 10,767 at the Barn.
“It was amazing,” said Curry, a 6-9 redshirt sophomore. “I couldn’t even sleep at night. I was so excited to be back out on the floor in front of the fans. It was just a great feeling when I got to check in and all the fans gave me a standing ovation.”
Daniel Oturu, Curry’s replacement as the starting center this year, had 12 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. Dupree McBrayer had a team-best 15 points, and the Gophers (11-2) ended nonconference play on a five-game winning streak.
Curry had hoped to be ready to begin this season after missing 2017-18 with torn ligaments and meniscus in his left knee. But doctors discovered in late October that he needed to repair cartilage damage. His initial recovery timetable was four to six weeks, but his comeback was delayed a few more weeks after more swelling occurred.
“Times were real tough and I was like, ‘I’m probably not going to come back — I’ll probably have to redshirt again,’ ” Curry said. “[Coaches, teammates and family] just kept my head on straight.”
Pitino knew it would be tough for the Gophers to jell right away with Curry new to the rotation, but it was better to get the kinks out now before Big Ten play resumes Thursday at Wisconsin.
“He’s active,” Pitino said. “To do the things he did was important for us. The rust that he must have because he hasn’t even been able to practice a whole lot. That was important to get him some minutes.”
Mount St. Mary’s (3-10) lost nine straight to begin the season, but it wouldn’t back down and showed why it had won its past three. The Mountaineers hung around for most of the game despite shooting 33.9 percent from the field.
After the Gophers stretched an eight-point halftime lead to 16, the Mountaineers went on a 10-0 run. A layup from Jalen Gibbs cut the deficit to 51-45 with 7:17 to play, but Mount St. Mary’s got no closer.
The Gophers, who had a 34-22 edge in points in the paint, used a different frontcourt rotation with Curry and junior Michael Hurt coming off the bench to replace Oturu and senior Jordan Murphy, who finished with 10 points, nine rebounds and three blocks.
In the first half, Curry scored his first basket since his freshman year in 2016-17 with a reverse layup in transition. His bulky knee brace limited his mobility, but that didn’t keep him from setting solid screens, battling for rebounds and showing scrappiness defensively. He even tried to take a charge. The Memphis native finished with four points and six rebounds in 18 minutes.
“He talks a lot, so it makes everything easier,” McBrayer said. “On defense, we definitely need that, because we can switch a lot more things.”