Columbus, Ohio – For a moment in the Gophers’ 78-63 loss to Ohio State in their Big Ten men’s basketball opener, it looked as if the narrative might change.
After falling behind 18-4 in the first six minutes of the game Wednesday night, the Gophers found a new energy. They used a 15-1 run to take their first lead just more than a minute into the second half, and still were within three points at 45-42 with 13 minutes, 55 seconds to go.
That’s when Jordan Murphy reached up to combat a missed tip-in by Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop.
Foul. With four against him, the star freshman forward took a seat.
When the 6-6 Murphy returned less than eight minutes later, the outcome was essentially settled. Ohio State, promptly launching a 20-3 run in his absence, had broken open a 16-point lead. The second uphill battle was too much for the Gophers, and the Buckeyes (9-5, 1-0 Big Ten) sprinted to the finish.
“Murph is our motor guy, he gets it going,” senior guard Carlos Morris said. “We needed that presence [Wednesday] and when he went to the bench, you saw what happened.”
The loss was the fifth in the past six games for Minnesota (6-7, 0-1), which hasn’t won at Value City Arena since 2005.
Marc Loving scored 20 points and added six rebounds for Ohio State, which shot 50.9 percent from the field and compiled 24 assists on 29 baskets, their highest total of the season. A productive, penetrating Morris led Minnesota with 18 points, six rebounds and three steals.
But few Gophers have as much impact on the game as Murphy, who started for the second time and finished with 11 points and five rebounds. Heading into the night, Murphy had posted five double-doubles in the past six games, but against the athletic Buckeyes, the absence of his length and defense in the post while he sat out was felt just as strongly as his production.
“When we lose him, we lose a big edge on the rebounding battle, just a tough physical presence inside,” senior forward Joey King said. “That kind of shocked us in the second half a little bit and it led to a big-time run for them.”
The Gophers trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half, but suddenly turned up the effort and used a 9-0 run capped by a Murphy alley-oop to pull within six at 26-20. Minnesota went into the break down only 37-34 with Morris pushing the pace and little-used freshman Ahmad Gilbert drilling a pair of three-pointers and then diving on the court for a loose ball. Gilbert flipped it to Morris, who was fouled, for a pair of free throws with five seconds left. In the second half, Minnesota took its first lead at 39-37 after a pair of free throws from Murphy with 18:58 to play.
When the Texas native sat, that momentum slowed to a halt. The Gophers were forced to use unorthodox and unproductive lineups, especially with centers Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou combining for only two points and two rebounds. Suddenly, the Gophers defense looked disorganized and porous once again, standing by as Ohio State got to the rim with ease.
Asked whether he considered bringing Murphy back earlier, Gophers coach Richard Pitino cited the player’s poor foul ratio — four after about 16 minutes on the court.
“He kept fouling,” Pitino said. “He just can’t get in foul trouble, he’s got to learn from it. I am tempted [to bring him back] but he’s got to sustain it a little bit better than he’s doing.”