Nate Mason was the reason the Gophers didn’t find themselves trailing at halftime in Wednesday’s 75-74 win against Indiana.
The other Gophers were 5-for-21 from the field, but Mason had 18 of his game-high 30 points in the first half.
The 6-foot-2 junior guard became the first Minnesota player since Vincent Grier in 2004-05 to have two 30-point games in the same season. He had a career-high 31 points and 11 assists in a 91-82 overtime win Jan. 1 at Purdue.
“This whole week of practice after that last game, my shot has been feeling great,” Mason said. “My cousin came to town. It was good to see his face. I hadn’t seen him in three or four years. He came to the game, and I wanted to play well for him. I guess it was a little good-luck charm.”
Akeem Springs joked: “We need to have his cousin come to all the games.”
But Mason's play has been more than just about a good-luck charm.
During the four-game winning streak, Mason is averaging 19.8 points per game, four assists and just 1.3 turnovers in 35.3 minutes. He’s also shooting an impressive 32-for-34 from the foul line.
Mason is clearly the Gophers’ go-to guy. And Springs was looking for him when the play broke down in the waning seconds Wednesday night. He couldn’t find his hot teammate. No problem, though, since Springs hit the game-winning shot after his miss was tipped back by Eric Curry.
“I was happy it went in,” Mason said with a smile. “When he took the shot, I know it was a tough shot. I knew he was going to get it on the rim or make the basket. I was satisfied with it.”
Indiana used 12-0 run to take a 22-12 lead in the first half after James Blackmon Jr.’s three-pointer with 7:23 left. Reggie Lynch scored on consecutive putbacks to break the scoring drought that lasted nearly 6 1/2 minutes.
But Mason went to work on the Hoosiers. He scored from the foul line, driving to the basket and from three-point range. One jumper he got bumped but still nailed it.
Mason started off Wednesday’s game shooting just 2-for-9 from the field, but he scored 12 points in the last 4:45 of the first half. His two free throws with six seconds left capped a 13-3 run going into halftime with a four-point advantage.
If he kept scoring at that rate, Mason might have ended up with 40 points. But he actually had just one field goal in the final 3:52 of the second half. And his teammates helped finish the game off strong.
Amir Coffey had seven of 17 second-half points in the last 3:31. Jordan Murphy, who finished with 14 points and 15 rebounds, hit two critical free throws with a minute left. Springs’ big shot never would’ve happened if Curry didn’t pick up a crucial offensive rebound and tap the ball to an open teammate on the baseline with 3.2 seconds left.
“We weren’t feeling high on ourselves because we were on a three-game winning streak,” Mason said. “We all came in and worked. And we got better.”
KEEP SPRINGS IN: With about four minutes left, Springs got benched after allowing Blackmon Jr. to nail a three-pointer off a pick-and-roll to put the Gophers down 65-60.
Pitino barked at his senior captain on the sideline, but he had the confidence to put him back in the game down the stretch.
“Coach is always mad at me,” Springs joked. “So that didn’t really get to me. I didn’t think about it honestly. I didn’t think I’m done for the game.”
Springs had his second straight game under double figures scoring with just four points on 2-for-13 shooting. He had averaged 17 points per game in his first five Big Ten starts, but Springs hasn't lost his confidence despite scoring 11 points combined on 5-for-21 shooting the last two games.
“He’s such a confident kid and he works so hard,” Pitino said. “That I’ve got trust in him. He just had an off-shooting night. At the end of the day, he made a basket that won the game. That’s all that matters.”
FOULING OUT: Lynch fouled out for the eighth time in 13 Big Ten games, so at least he’s consistent. But the Gophers’ junior center still managed to block four shots Wednesday night. Lynch now has 81 blocks this season. He only needs eight more to tie Gophers legend Randy Breuer’s single-season program record of 89.
HIGH-MOTOR MURPH: Murphy is averaging 18.7 points, 15 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in his last three games. He's also shooting 64.7 percent from the field (22-for-34) during that span. These are amazing numbers considering that the 6-6 sophomore was averaging about six points and five rebounds during an eight-game stretch earlier in Big Ten play.