Amir Coffey found himself sitting on the court at just the right time in the first half Wednesday when a rebound literally fell into his lap.
The Gophers sophomore guard immediately knew what to do with the ball — shoot it. Coffey’s butt bucket gave him 13 of his 23 points in the first half against No. 10 Miami (Fla.).
On any other night, Coffey’s miraculous shot would’ve given his team the momentum it needed to take control, especially with the first sellout crowd of the season on its feet at Williams Arena.
The No. 12-ranked Gophers had a chance to prove worthy of all the early hype with a victory against a ranked opponent for the second consecutive game, but they weren’t at full strength and struggled defensively in an 86-81 loss.
“We certainly squandered some opportunities,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “It’s always disappointing when you don’t win with an environment like that. It’s one of the best I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
Some observers dismissed Minnesota’s victory against No. 25 Alabama on Saturday at the Barclays Center Classic because the Crimson Tide outplayed Pitino’s team in the last 10 minutes playing three-on-five.
This time Minnesota was shorthanded with junior guard Dupree McBrayer sidelined because of a right leg infection, which put highly touted freshman Isaiah Washington into the starting lineup.
Washington finished with 14 points, but he struggled for most of the night. He made only one of his first 10 shots and committed five turnovers.
Pitino said every freshman goes through tough games such as Wednesday. And Washington’s teammates agreed.
“I think it was the last turnover he put his head down and kind of walked away,” senior guard Nate Mason said. “I called him and I was like ‘pick your head up.’ It’s going to be a tough pill to swallow, but once he digests everything and listens to what Coach has to say, I think he’s going to recover.”
Miami got contributions from inside and outside with big man Dewan Huell’s 23 points on 10-for-16 shooting and Bruce Brown Jr.’s 16 points.
The Hurricanes shot 56 percent in the second half, which included Brown’s three-pointer to give Miami a 71-59 with 8 minutes, 37 seconds left.
A layup by Washington capped a 12-2 run that cut Minnesota’s deficit to 73-71 with 3:41 remaining, but the Gophers couldn’t come up with the defensive stops needed to get any closer.
The Hurricanes answered with a 7-0 run, highlighted by a three-point play off a dunk and free throw from Huell near the two-minute mark.
Jordan Murphy, the Big Ten’s leading scorer and rebounder, also missed two free throws with three minutes left that would’ve cut the Gophers’ deficit to two points. Murphy still had his nation’s-best eighth double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds.
Pitino said McBrayer’s injury hurt a depleted bench as well with Washington having to take on a starting role. The Gophers got no points from their reserves, with Jamir Harris the only sub taking a shot.
“I’ve said from Day 1, I thought our core starting five was really, really good,” Pitino said. “But our bench was very inexperienced. When Dupree went down, I think our defensive [chemistry] went away.”
Coffey’s seated shot and scoring spree was about all Minnesota had to answer Miami in the first half, when he scored 11 of the team’s last 13 points going into halftime. He led a 24-11 run for the Gophers to take a six-point lead late in the first half, but the Hurricanes still managed to tie it 36-36 at halftime.
In a big-game atmosphere, the Gophers looked overwhelmed at times with Miami’s athletes, but they’ll take it as a lesson on how to defend better against one of the top teams in the country.
“It was not [just] their athleticism,” Coffey said. “It was really the pick-and-roll. We weren’t guarding it like we usually do.”