MILWAUKEE – Nate Mason limped time and time again in the second half of the Gophers' 81-72 first-round loss to Middle Tennesee on Thursday. The All-Big Ten junior guard was having his worst game of the season — at the worst time.
But he wasn't healthy enough to do anything about it after suffering a hip injury, Gophers coach Richard Pitino said.
"He was hurt and we couldn't sub guys out," Pitino said. "That was very, very difficult."
Mason averaged 17.2 points per game in the Big Ten, the highest average in league play for a Gophers player since Vincent Grier in 2005.
There was no doubt he was Pitino's best player and arguably the top point guard in the conference through the last stretch of the regular season.
But Mason was outplayed by Bronson Koenig in a loss at Wisconsin on March 5. He struggled in a victory against Michigan State to open the Big Ten tournament. But the Georgia native broke out with a 23-point performance in a loss to Michigan in the conference tournament semifinals in Washington.
Mason couldn't carry that over Thursday. He was scoreless on 0-for-5 shooting from the field in the first half. He didn't make his first basket until a jumper with Minnesota trailing 46-38 at 16:31 in the second half. He hit his last shot on a three-pointer with 5:25 left to cut it to 67-61.
Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer, Mason's starting backcourt mates, combined for 33 points and nine assists. But the Gophers needed a lift from their captain.
"It hurts," Mason said. "Obviously, it wasn't the outcome we wanted. But we're just going to use it as motivation."
Gophers junior center Reggie Lynch was not happy with the officiating after the game. Lynch, who has battled foul problems all season, was whistled for two fouls in a span of two seconds in the first half.
He picked up his third foul early in the second half but did not foul out. He was, however, limited to 24 minutes.
Lynch was particularly bothered that a foul wasn't called when he was hit in the mouth early in the game.
"It's funny how many fouls I get, but I get hit in the mouth and I don't get any fouls called on them," he said.
Coffey and Eric Curry might not like the outcome Thursday, but they were encouraged by having strong performances to end their freshmen seasons.
Curry had 11 points and three rebounds in 21 minutes. Coffey's 17 points are the most points scored by a Gophers freshman in an NCAA tournament game since Dusty Rychart had 23 points in a first-round loss to Gonzaga in 1999.
"It was a pretty big environment for us," Coffey said. "March Madness is different. So it meant a lot that we both played well."