Amir Coffey turned to the Williams Arena crowd after a late momentum-changing three-pointer in Wednesday’s upset of Nebraska and let out a big scream.
It was the rare instance Coffey showed that much emotion. The junior guard’s career night — 32 points, six assists, six rebounds — led to a big victory for the Gophers, and especially for senior teammate Dupree McBrayer, playing only days after the death of his mother.
“It felt good,” said Coffey, who hadn’t taken over a game like that since a 30-point outburst vs. St. John’s two years earlier, when as a freshman he was a key piece to an NCAA tournament team.
So why don’t we see more boiling-hot versions of that Coffey?
Last season’s right shoulder injury is part of that answer. Having to learn on the fly a new role as the de facto point guard this year is part of it, too. That transition has hindered Coffey’s consistency as a big-time playmaker.
Wednesday, the 6-8 former Hopkins standout sparked the Gophers (7-2) when they need it most: down 13 points in the second half.
“Minnesota is as good as Coffey is,” said Big Ten Network analyst Stephen Bardo, who covered the 83-76 Gophers victory over the No. 24 Corhuskers at Williams Arena. “As long as Amir plays well, he takes a lot of pressure off other guys, because he can do so many things.”
Going into Saturday’s game against Arkansas State, Coffey leads the Gophers in scoring (16.2), minutes played (32.1), free-throw percentage (72.1) and steals (8.0), while tied for the team lead in assists (3.0).
Coach Richard Pitino said he was tired of observers only bringing up All-Big Ten senior forward Jordan Murphy in NBA prospect discussions. He told Coffey recently, “When are they going to start talking about you?”
“ ‘That’s on you,’ ” Pitino told Coffey. “ ‘We’ll put you in positions, but you’ve got to be aggressive.’ ”
Since arriving as a top-30 recruit and Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball in 2016, Coffey has added strength and weight — he’s up to 210 pounds — allowing him to make stronger drives and finish through contact. He’s also a better defender, holding Nebraska leading scorer James Palmer Jr. to 3-for-14 shooting Wednesday.
With Nate Mason graduated and transfer Marcus Carr not ineligible this season, Coffey became the Gophers’ best point guard option. Sophomore Isaiah Washington is still growing as a decisionmaker.
Coffey’s learning to juggle facilitating, initiating the offense and looking to score. Since he had six turnovers in a win against Texas A&M in Vancouver last month, Pitino has moved Coffey around to different spots on the perimeter. He runs plays for him off ball screens and different sets.
“I’m trying to balance it,” Coffey said. “Getting others involved but also getting my shot.”
Mainly, though, Coffey deciding to drive hard, push the ball up court or take open jumpers makes him one of the Big Ten’s toughest to defend.
“He found people,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “He made some tough shots, got to the foul line. He kind of singlehandedly kept Minnesota hanging around.”
In the first half Wednesday, the Cornhuskers couldn’t pull away because Coffey scored 11 consecutive points to keep the game within striking distance. In the second half, the Gophers trailed 69-60 with 7:37 remaining when Coffey got frustrated after missing two free throws. He responded by scoring 12 points in the final seven minutes during a 25-9 finish that sealed the Gophers’ first Big Ten victory this season.
On one play off Murphy’s screen, Coffey dribbled between his legs, changed direction to get past Palmer and scored on a layup while falling to the floor after being fouled.
The threat of Coffey scoring then drew multiple defenders a minute later, when he drove the basket and kicked a pass out to McBrayer for a three-pointer.
“It was an awesome night for him,” Pitino said. “He was in attack mode. He was making plays off the bounce, making plays at the rim, knocking down some open threes. Defensively, he did some little things as well. So obviously he carried us to victory. That’s what great players do. He’s got to continue to evolve in that.”