When Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason were named captains at the beginning of the season, it was clear the Gophers knew they would go as far as both players could take them.
The combined struggles of Mason and Murphy were too much to overcome during a five-game losing streak, but the two leaders bounced back and lifted Minnesota up with them for three straight wins.
Their combined 33 points Saturday led the Gophers to a 72-63 win at Rutgers.
"Jordan Murphy set the tone in the first half," Gophers coach Richard Pitino told reporters after the game. "Our rebounding really set the tone in the first half. We played extremely hard after a double-overtime game and a long flight. So a lot to be extremely proud of and excited about."
Murphy has one fewer field goal in the last two games than he had the previous eight games before his 25-point, 19-rebound performance in Wednesday's 101-89 win in two overtimes against Iowa.
He's averaging 21 points on 64.3 percent (18-for-28) shooting, to go with 15 rebounds and two blocks in the last two games. In the previous eight games, the 6-foot-6 sophomore averaged just 6.4 points on 41 percent shooting (19-for-46), to go with 5.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks.
Mason was averaging 10.6 points on 25.8 percent shooting (16-for-62) during a five-game stretch. But in the last five games, the 6-2 junior guard is averaging 17.8 points on 36.7 percent (29-for-79). What might be most impressive is Mason is shooting 21-for-22 from the free-throw line in the last five games.
When the Gophers lost 75-52 at Rutgers last season, Mason was sitting on the bench watching his team get demolished because he was suspended with Kevin Dorsey and Dupree McBrayer for violating team rules. Murphy couldn’t carry the team on his own, finishing with just seven points on 3-for-21 shooting.
So it’s obvious that Mason and Murphy have come a long way with their team since.
SOLID CURRY: Amir Coffey had his sixth straight double-figure scoring game Saturday with 12 points, five assists, four rebounds and two steals. He averages 12.2 points this year, so this type of game is almost expected from the former Hopkins standout. There seems to be no doubt he’ll make the All-Big Ten freshman team at this rate.
But fellow Gophers freshman Eric Curry quietly had his best game in Big Ten play Saturday. The 6-foot-9 forward had a Big-Ten high 11 points on 5-for-5 shooting, to go with six rebounds, two assists and two blocks against Rutgers. It was Curry’s second double-figure scoring game in the conference and first since having 10 points in the Dec. 27 Big-Ten opening loss against Michigan State at home.
Curry’s confidence offensively is catching up to his already impressive defense and rebounding ability for his age. The Memphis native made up for another off day scoring from starting center Reggie Lynch, who had just two points in 17 minutes. Lynch has scored only five points combined on 1-for-11 shooting in the last two games, but the Gophers have still won two in a row.
STILL BLOCKING: The Gophers were far from their 14-block performance Wednesday against Iowa. But Curry and Lynch still combined for five blocks Saturday. Lynch climbed to sixth on the school’s single-season blocks list with 77. He only needs 10 more blocks to tie legend Randy Breuer’s single-season record of 87 set in 1982-83. The 6-foot-10 Edina native might only need a couple more games to get there or break the record.
REBOUNDING IMPROVED: Minnesota ranked 10th in the Big Ten in rebounding margin entering the game Saturday, but it won the battle on the boards 40-34, including 14 offensive rebounds.
Rutgers was second in the league in rebounding margin behind Wisconsin, so it was not an easy task to keep the Scarlet Knights off the glass.
The Gophers were outrebounded in three straight games during a five-game losing streak, but they’ve come out on top two straight games now, including Wednesday against Iowa 53-49.