After the Gophers’ first loss of the season earlier in the week against No. 10 Miami (Fla.), Richard Pitino was proud of the way his players listened to the coaching staff and ignored the opinions of others trying to tell them what went wrong.
Pitino definitely had teaching moments after falling to the Hurricanes on Wednesday, whether it was moving the ball, communicating on defense or being mentally tough.
And the No. 12 Gophers used those lessons to bounce back Sunday behind Nate Mason’s 26 points in a Big Ten-opening 89-67 victory against Rutgers at Williams Arena.
Learning from winning is difficult sometimes, but so is hearing from too many people when you lose.
“Losing is hard, because everybody comes out of the woodwork when you lose — all the voices, everybody: the friends, the fans, the family,” Pitino said. “When you lose, they all have an opinion. When you win, they stay away. So you got to get everybody to understand to block out that noise and trust in what we’re doing. I thought our guys were good at that.”
The Big Ten tournament at Madison Square Garden this year meant two conference games in early December, which includes the Gophers (8-1) playing Tuesday at Nebraska.
Coaches are typically still working out the kinks this time of the year, making for sloppier play, but the Gophers overcame that Sunday with their veterans rising to the occasion.
Mason had 16 points in the second half, to go with seven assists with just one turnover. Jordan Murphy struggled with foul trouble (three in the first half) and shooting (3-for-13), but he extended his national-best double-double streak to nine games with 18 points and 16 rebounds.
The starters shot 25-for-31 on free throws, which included Murphy going 12-for-14.
“It was just about calming down,” Murphy said. “I was getting too aggressive in some things and got a little riled up. But Coach and Nate did a good job of telling me to keep my head in the game.”
Returning to the starting lineup was junior Dupree McBrayer, who missed Wednesday’s loss because he was hospitalized with a leg infection. McBrayer, who had his right leg heavily taped and had lost 19 pounds, had seven points, four assists, two steals and two blocks.
The Scarlet Knights (6-2) led the nation in offensive rebounding entering Sunday and grabbed 14 in the first half. But Minnesota held them to 28 percent shooting from the field for a 43-33 halftime lead.
The nation’s top shot blocker, Reggie Lynch, who finished with 16 points and nine rebounds, spearheaded the defensive effort inside with five blocks.
First-half highlights were abundant for the Gophers, but Mason’s four-point play after being fouled on a high-arching three-pointer made it 49-28.
In the second half, the Gophers started Davonte Fitzgerald over Murphy, who was in foul trouble. Rutgers tried to take advantage, and pulled within 60-52 at the nine-minute mark on Mamadou Doucoure’s second consecutive basket.
But Minnesota pulled away again with an 11-2 run capped by Mason’s four free throws, which built a 71-54 lead after Rutgers was called for a personal foul and technical at 7:03.
“I think we bounced back pretty well,” Mason said. “We took to coaching and learned from the film. Our defense was much better today and it showed.”