Midway through the first half Friday night, Gophers coach Richard Pitino benched his starters for having a lackluster start and falling behind 10 points to North Carolina A&T.
Responding to the challenge was Jordan Murphy, who took control with 18 of his season-high 30 points in the first half, to go with 16 rebounds in an 86-67 victory in front of an announced 10,144 at Williams Arena.
“It doesn’t always have to be me,” Murphy said. “But today it just happened to be me. I got very passionate about it. I’m always talking to our guys and talking to [Daniel Oturu].”
Oturu followed Murphy’s lead to make a formidable inside tandem with 20 points and 11 rebounds for the Gophers (10-2), who scored 56 points in the paint and won the rebounding battle 49-30.
Pitino, who was hired in March 2013, picked up his 100th victory in his 180th game as Gophers coach.
“The way they run coaches off here left and right, it’s nice to get,” Pitino joked. “I kind of forgot about it, to be honest. It’s cool. This is a great place. I love it. I hope to be here for a long time.”
After a 10-day break in competition with finals, the Gophers returned to the court with no rhythm offensively in the outset, but the Aggies (4-8) opened the game shooting 10-for-17 and took a 25-15 lead after a three-pointer from D’Andre Johnson.
It was time for the 6-7 Murphy to take over. The two-time All-Big Ten forward scored eight of his team’s next 10 points to tie the score at 25-25. Oturu scored three straight points to cap a 16-0 run and grab a 31-25 advantage at the five-minute mark.
Murphy and Oturu combined for 30 points and 16 rebounds in the first half, but Isaiah Washington’s turnaround jumper gave the Gophers a 41-33 halftime edge. Washington finished with his second consecutive double-figure assist game with 10 on Friday.
In the second half, Murphy made an early statement, throwing down two dunks within a span of 60 seconds. North Carolina A&T made one last rally to cut a 14-point deficit to 58-51 when Pitino tried to get his starters some rest.
The Gophers flexed their muscle in the frontcourt again with Murphy scoring his 30th point to make it 75-62 with 3:46 to play. Pitino said he relied more on his post play with leading scorer Amir Coffey nursing a hip pointer injury. Coffey had seven points in 23 minutes. But Dupree McBrayer, who missed the Gophers’ previous game to be with his family following the death of his mother, finished with 13 points.
On Thursday, Pitino got a good look at redshirt sophomore big man Eric Curry for an hour of full contact in practice. Curry, who hasn’t played this season while recovering from knee surgery in October, is still trying to get into shape and comfortable with his surgically repaired left knee.
“I don’t know why he wouldn’t play [Dec. 30 vs. Mount St. Mary’s], but I’m not a doctor,” Pitino said. “I think it’s important he continues to progress with the contact portion of practice.”
Oturu has done just fine replacing Curry. The 6-10 Cretin-Derham Hall product had his fourth consecutive double-figure scoring game and third consecutive double-double Friday.
“It’s a good blessing to have someone like Dan to score the ball,” Murphy said. “He’s very talented and very young, too. He’s going to have a bright future.”