A near-sellout crowd of 14,448 roared at Mackey Arena on Sunday when Purdue forward Vincent Edwards nailed a three-pointer late in the first half to cut what had been a 13-point lead for the Gophers to three.
Some observers say the atmosphere in West Lafayette, Ind., is the loudest in college basketball, but Nate Mason wasn’t rattled.
The Gophers junior guard answered with a three-pointer of his own, and if that wasn’t enough to quiet the din, he looked right up to thousands of fans and pressed a finger to his lips. Shhhh.
At that point, the 6-2 Mason made the Purdue faithful hate him even more. The Steph Curry impersonation wasn’t popular with Boilermakers players, either.
His performance ended up Curryesque, however, with 31 points and 11 assists in a 91-82 overtime victory. He became the first Gopher to have a 30-10 game in points and assists, and the first Big Ten player in 20 years to do so on the road.
“The rim got kind of big for me,” he said. “It was falling.”
Mason believes he’s the best player on the court, even though usually he’s one of the smallest, and his confidence and swagger have made him the face of this turnaround season for the Gophers (13-2, 1-1) who look to keep momentum going Thursday at Northwestern (12-3, 1-1).
“Every time that crowd was on their feet and the roof was about to blow open, [Mason] quieted them down,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “I prefer he didn’t tell them to be quiet, but that’s OK. I like the confidence there. But he was really that influence that everybody just saw, and said, ‘OK, Nate is ready to go; we’ve got to be ready with him.’ ”
Pitino wanted his returning backcourt starters, Mason and sophomore Dupree McBrayer, to be more aggressive on offense. McBrayer had no problem looking for his shot, but Mason needed time.
He was the team’s third-leading scorer through the first five games behind freshman Amir Coffey and McBrayer. But Mason has been more aggressive since his 18 points helped the Gophers escape with a 74-68 victory Dec. 6 against New Jersey Institute of Technology. He has scored 18 points or more in four of the past seven games.
But Mason also gets his teammates involved, too, ranking second in the Big Ten with 5.8 assists per game.
“He’s probably been the best leader that we’ve had and the person who stands out the most,” said sophomore forward Jordan Murphy, a fellow team captain. “Every time we huddle on the court or in timeouts, he’s always saying something, telling us what he sees. Nate’s never one to back down from anyone.”
Last season, the Georgia native averaged 16.8 points and 5.6 assists per game in his last nine games, which included 25 points at Michigan, 21 points at Indiana and 18 points in an upset of No. 5 Maryland at home, before being suspended for the final four games for violating team rules.
But in two games against Northwestern last year, Mason combined for only 21 points on 7-for-24 shooting from the field. He wasn’t the only player who struggled, but he blamed himself for the losses.
In the Big Ten-opening 75-74 overtime loss against Michigan State on Dec. 27, Mason finished with 18 points, but he missed nine shots, including a potential game-winner in overtime.
Mason’s confidence wasn’t shaken, though, as evident by how he responded when Purdue’s crowd got excited.
“I was in the gym a lot after the Michigan State game,” he said. “I felt like I — not lost the game, but did some mistakes toward the end. It was obvious I needed to get in the gym, so I did every day until this game. And it paid off.”