Joey King’s shot teetered at the rim, threatening to halt the Gophers’ momentum.
But just as he was all Monday night, freshman Jordan Murphy was there, complementing his senior counterpart and igniting a snow-slimmed crowd with his athleticism. Murphy flew from the baseline, snatched the ball and jammed it through the hoop.
The basket pushed the Gophers’ lead to seven with just over a minute left, and proved to be another big moment for the dynamic forward duo en route to the team’s best and most notable victory of the season by far, 89-83 over Clemson in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at Williams Arena on Monday night.
As the seconds ticked away, King grabbed Murphy behind the head and matched his protégé’s grin.
“He told me I’d better play like that all the time now,” Murphy said afterward. “I’d better show up like that every single game.”
Together, the unlikely pair turned out to be the Gophers’ winning elixir, even against a much bigger, more physical Clemson team, using their contrasting styles to keep the Tigers’ lauded defense off balance. Murphy posted career-highs in points (24) and rebounds (10) while King added 17 points.
“As basketball players, we’re really different,” King said. “But we’ve become really great friends … when we’re out on the floor we trust each other and we work together very, very well. Having guys like me and him and the four and the five in the game sometimes, it’s very difficult to guard. I’m a vocal presence on defense and with his athleticism it does a lot for us on the defensive end, too.”
The Gophers (5-2) looked like they might lose the toughness battle once again early, falling behind by as many as 10 with 3 minutes, 25 seconds left in the first half.
Clemson (4-2) matched the Gophers’ early intensity and used its versatility to control the game. Junior forward Jaron Blossomgame proved to be a matchup nightmare, picking apart the Gophers defense for 24 points. And the Tigers, averaging just 33.6 percent from three-point range coming into the game, suddenly boasted a roster full of sharpshooters. Clemson knocked down 14 of 28 attempts from beyond the arc, with Jordan Roper sinking five of nine on his way to scoring 25 points.
But the Gophers’ tone changed after the break. Facing the country’s fifth-ranked scoring defense, Minnesota built on a balanced, dynamic offensive presence it showed in the first half. The Gophers scored inside and out, got to the line 25 times in the second half and snatched their first rebounding advantage (31-25) of the year.
“I think that our biggest enemies have been ourselves,” Murphy said. “We have a lot of potential to be a good team but I think sometimes we get in our heads a little bit and we’ve been going away from the pressure. I think we need to go face first into the pressure.”
The Gophers, trailing 42-36 at halftime, started the second half on a 12-4 run to build a two-point lead and reclaimed the advantage for good at 58-56 on a three-point play from Murphy with 11 minutes left.
Pitino went with King and Murphy in the frontcourt for the rest of the game, benching centers Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou, both of whom had struggled all night. King popped to the perimeter, while Murphy barreled down low.
And at the end, the Gophers made enough free throws — 24 in 30 attempts — to prevail.
“I’ve got to keep looking at [the combination] obviously,” Pitino said. “They’re pretty good together. We need to start working on some things from the post, trapping from the weak side because those two guys are really good together… [they] won the game for us today vs. a much bigger team.”