Jordan Murphy’s struggles with consistency are not from a lack of hard work away from Gophers basketball practices.
Last season’s All-Big Ten freshman forward has spent as much time as anyone throughout this season working on his individual game.
That’s why Murphy’s teammates were pretty ecstatic to see the bouncy 6-6 sophomore dunk, swat and board his way to a career-high 25 points, 19 rebounds and four blocks in Wednesday’s 101-89 double-overtime victory over Iowa.
“With good players, it’s going to happen,” senior captain Akeem Springs said. “If you work hard, it’s going to happen when you have a good player like that. If they have a couple bad games, you should watch out, because it’s going to balance out.”
Two bad games, though, became three, four, five and six in a row for Murphy.
Suddenly, the player everyone expected to make a big jump in his second season was suffering through the longest slump of his young career. Fans were frustrated, some wanting talented freshman Eric Curry to replace him as a frontcourt starter.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino believed in Murphy and told fans each week on his radio show that benching his captain wasn’t an option. He wanted Murphy to remember what made him so tough last season.
“He needs to embrace kind of that junkyard dog mentality,” said Pitino, who hopes Murphy has a strong follow-up performance for the Gophers (17-7, 5-6) on Saturday at Rutgers (13-12, 2-10).
“Offensive rebound like he was doing. Blocking shots. That’s his game. That needs to be his identity. The other stuff will come in time with development.”
Murphy failed to score in double figures in seven of the previous eight games before Wednesday night. But his determination to make more of an impact was evident in the first half against Iowa.
It wasn’t necessarily about scoring, an area coaches have told him isn’t his strong suit.
Pitino preached to Murphy before the game about focusing on rebounding and blocking shots. Crashing the boards never had been a major issue, but he had a one-rebound game playing 26 minutes in a 78-76 overtime loss against Wisconsin on Jan. 28.
At his best, Murphy grabbed 21 rebounds in a 75-74 overtime loss against Michigan State Dec. 27, the most for a U player since Jim Brewer had 22 in 1972.
Despite being an undersized power forward, Murphy can be a rim protector when he wants to, with a 7-foot wingspan and quick leaping ability.
Pitino didn’t run any plays for Murphy on Wednesday. In the first half, Murphy had six points on 2-for-5 shooting, but he led the team with eight rebounds and three blocks. In the second half and two overtimes, the San Antonio native shot 7-for-7 and had a team-best 19 points, including 13 points in 16 minutes in the second half.
“He’s going to get his baskets the way he got his baskets,” Pitino said. “That was my point from Day 1. That’s where Murph is going to do his damage. It’s not about finding touches for him.”
The Gophers do try to establish an inside scoring presence early in games with 6-10 junior center Reggie Lynch, who also leads the Big Ten in blocks. Lynch had 13 rebounds and six blocks Wednesday, but he scored only three points on 1-for-9 shooting.
So Murphy’s scoring in the post was desperately needed.
“It was very encouraging, because we’ve been waiting for Jordan to have a night like this for a while now,” Lynch said. “So it was good for him to have it in a close game, an overtime game and to see him shine.”
Murphy, as low-key and humble as they come, downplayed the significance of his breakout game and deferred credit to teammates Wednesday. But he understands best how he can be a factor.
“It definitely started with my rebounding,” he said. “I knew that I was getting it going on the rebounding end and that just really would let everything get going like that.
‘‘Of course, my teammates were finding me when I got open. I was just really confident down the stretch.”