In the second half of the Gophers’ victory over Nebraska in early December, Dupree McBrayer nailed a key three-pointer and pointed to the sky. That motion said, This one’s for you, Mom.
After the game, McBrayer was consoled by coaches and players on both teams. A towel rested on his head, draped over his teary-eyed face. As his body shook with grief, the voice of his teammate Jordan Murphy whispering in his ear was the loudest.
“Murph is like, ‘I got you, brother, I got you, brother,’ ” said McBrayer, who played that game less than 48 hours after his mother, Tayra McFarlane, died of cancer. “Hearing that — it was just like, this is my brother — I just broke down and started crying, and I said. ‘I love you, bro.’ ”
The two senior captains have backgrounds and paths to Minnesota that could not be more different, but they formed a strong bond during their four years with the Gophers, who play host to No. 11 Purdue for Senior Night on Tuesday.
“We’re the last two from our recruiting class here,” Murphy said. “From my perspective, it’s huge for me because I know him and I’m really close to him. I’ve seen him through some hard times.”
‘A lot of moves’
During his high school years, McBrayer went to four schools: from Springfield Gardens in Queens to Las Vegas Quest Prep to Patrick School in New Jersey and eventually Sunrise Christian in Kansas. His mother was an assistant prison warden and sent him to prep school to keep him away from the trouble in their neighborhood.
“When I got away, my mom told me, ‘Don’t worry about leaving,’ ” he said. “So that just made me think I have to work hard. Things were really different. I just wanted to become the best me I could and be as ready as I can [for college].”
On any summer night at Dyckman Park in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, you can find some of the best streetballers matching up with top high school, college and pro talent. McBrayer developed into a crafty 6-5 lefty with enough slick dribble drives and pullup jumpers to earn the nickname “A lot Of Moves” at Dyckman.
That was a proud moment for a teenager who grew up watching city stars dominate that blacktop.
“I actually wore a St. John’s jersey there one day,” McBrayer said. “Everybody thought I was going to St. John’s, and I was like ‘Nah.’ That was after I went on a visit there.”
McBrayer almost committed to his hometown program, but he surprisingly picked the Gophers in August 2014. It came down to the relationship he built with Richard Pitino and already had with then-Gophers assistant Kimani Young, who was also from Queens. Young left last year to join Danny Hurley’s staff at Connecticut.
“I just felt like in my heart I wanted to come to Minnesota,” McBrayer said. “Coach P and Coach Kimani did a good job of making me feel like a priority. My man [Young] left, but I know it was business. I’m rooting for him.”
Bernard Murphy remembers teaching his son an important aspect of the game in San Antonio’s youth church league.
“I told him don’t worry about shooting, just rebound,” Jordan Murphy’s father said. “We did it in the morning time. I would teach him how to rebound. Quickness, getting off his feet early. I told him it’s all in the timing. I’m not surprised how he has come along.”
After spending his freshman year at Central Catholic, Jordan Murphy transferred to Brennan and immediately went to the Texas Class 4A tournament. Murphy, San Antonio’s prep player of the year in 2015, was considered one of the best talents to come out of the area since Shaquille O’Neal was at Cole High in the late 1980s.
There was another NBA big man that Murphy’s personality would resemble more. His mother, Celia, saw a lot of similarities in former Spurs star Tim Duncan, who was from the same part of the Virgin Islands where she was raised.
“We always instilled in him early on that if you’re going to get something, you have to work very hard for it,” she said. “Coming from the Virgin Islands, I was brought up that way. He’s really taken that to heart. He just has incredible work ethic. That’s why he got to where he is now.”
Where Murphy is now is the Gophers’ all-time rebounding leader and No. 2 in Big Ten history. But he is not ready to reflect back yet on accomplishments.
“It’s going to be tough for me,” the 6-7, 250-pound Murphy said. “It’s going to be my last [home] game, so I’ve got to play hard, give it my all and go 100 percent every time on the floor. Obviously, I’m going to have some nostalgic moments and have some good memories when I look back. I’ll be able to say I did my thing there.”
Finish strong together
Murphy was quiet and kept to himself when he arrived in Minnesota. McBrayer was Mr. Social. Murphy joked they went from “being at war” to “getting along great.”
“He wasn’t part of the original recruiting class, so nobody knew him,” McBrayer said of Murphy, who made a late change to his commitment from Virginia Commonwealth. “He didn’t really talk much, but he started to open up. Throughout the four years, we just became so close. There’s not a time during every day where we don’t see each other.”
There are five seniors being honored Tuesday night — the other three are recent transfers Brock Stull and Matz Stockman and non-playing team member Jarvis Johnson — but McBrayer and Murphy are the ones who experienced the highest highs and lowest lows. Going from eight-win season as freshmen to the NCAA tournament and school-record turnaround the following season in 2016-17 was the highlight.
McBrayer has had an emotional and difficult season, and Murphy and his teammates have been by his side. The Gophers attended McBrayer’s mother’s funeral in New York and wear “TM” patches in her honor. Knowing she won’t be there on Senior Night will be hard for McBrayer, and Murphy will be there to support him again.
“Dupree’s pretty emotional with everything that he’s gone through,” Murphy said. “This was probably the hardest time he’s been through. Just being able to be there with him on his last night and being a brother to him is really important.”