Before Saturday, Nate Mason hadn’t missed a Gophers men’s basketball game since the 2015-16 season.
Mason started 48 consecutive games over the past 1½ seasons, so the Gophers were hopeful he would play Saturday despite an ankle injury, all the way up until he was ruled out after morning shootaround.
The senior point guard’s absence was a significant blow to the Gophers’ offensive execution, but the backcourt scraped together enough plays down the stretch to pull out a 65-55 victory over Harvard in front of an announced sellout of 14,625 at Williams Arena.
Teammates could see how critical it will be to have him back for Big Ten play, starting Wednesday against Illinois and Saturday against Indiana.
“He’s the leader, he’s the head of the horse,” junior Dupree McBrayer said. “He’s what makes us go, runs the offense. It was kind of weird having him out.”
McBrayer scored 15 points in his return to the Gophers (12-3) after missing two games because of a lower left leg injury. Amir Coffey had 12 points and five assists. And Isaiah Washington added nine points and a career-high 13 rebounds replacing Mason in his second career start.
The Gophers overcame 33 percent shooting from the floor by holding Harvard to even worse at 32.8. And they held big advantages over the Crimson at the foul line (18-for-20 vs. 6-for-8) and in rebounding (49-36).
Jordan Murphy recorded his 15th double-double in as many games this season with 13 points and 12 rebounds, but he shot only 3-for-12 from the floor. Murphy reminded younger teammates that Saturday’s game was a glimpse of how tough and physical conference play will be starting this week.
“Big Ten’s really not a soft league,” Murphy said. “So we’re definitely getting them prepared.”
The Gophers extended their winning streak to four, leaving behind the sour taste of back-to-back road losses to Nebraska and Arkansas in early December.
Harvard (5-8) played without injured leading scorer Bryce Aiken, but the Crimson still put a scare in the Gophers faithful, cutting a double-digit deficit to 45-42 after a three-pointer from Corey Johnson with 8 minutes, 23 seconds left in the second half.
McBrayer hit a three-pointer to answer Harvard’s 7-0 run midway through the half. Washington followed with another three and his trademark jelly finger roll to ignite the crowd and give Minnesota a 53-42 lead with 6:50 remaining.
The Crimson made it 59-51 with 28 seconds left, but the Gophers escaped after some free throws provided enough cushion late. Minnesota shot 12-for-13 from the foul line in the second half, including six in a row with under a minute left.
Rebounding and defense are becoming more of the Gophers’ identity instead of offense going back into Big Ten play, but getting back to full strength will be the biggest factor for contending in the conference this season.
“Without Nate, you could tell offensively it was a bit of struggle for us,” coach Richard Pitino said. “I’m hopeful another day off will be good. I think a little bit of it is cutting. If he’s walking straight shooting jump shots he’s fine. But it’s that lateral movement that hurts him a little bit. So hopefully he’ll be back by Wednesday, but I don’t know.”