Wearing street clothes, Amir Coffey fiddled with a can of Sprite, struggling to open the soft drink with a bag of ice wrapped to his right hand. His face was expressionless as he sat at the postgame podium.
He didn’t look like he’d just scored a career-high 32 points, carried his team past a 13-point second-half deficit and helped the Minnesota Golden Gophers get a win for teammate Dupree McBrayer, whose mother passed away on Monday from cancer.
On a night filled with emotions, Coffey kept his own in check, helping the Gophers (7-2, 1-1) claim their first Big Ten win and putting the conference on notice that he can be as tough to guard as any perimeter player in the league.
Never comfortable being heaped with praise, Coffey deferred — almost seemed agitated — when asked if he had sent a message to the rest of the conference.
“I don’t have one,” he said. “I’m just going to keep playing and not worry about if they’re talking about me or not. That shouldn’t be something I’m worried about.”
The stoic 6-foot-8 junior did allow for one emotional explosion. Just seconds after taking a charge on one end of the floor — risking his fourth foul with three minutes remaining — Coffey stroked a right-wing 3-pointer that gave the Gophers a 77-73 edge. As Nebraska called for timeout, Coffey ran toward the student section, flexing and screaming.
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“‘You’ve got to be aggressive,'” head Richard Pitino told Coffey before the game, “and he did that tonight. He kept attacking, he took care of the ball — only turned it over twice. He was terrific. I think people will start talking about him now.”
It’s hard to nitpick a player who’s scored double figures in 22 straight games. But an objective knock on Coffey would be his free throw shooting — just 69 percent entering play on Wednesday. A subjective criticism would be his occasional passivity, which Pitino ostensibly urged him to shake before the game.
Coffey responded in both areas, knocking down 14 of 17 free throws and attacking the basket with a relentlessness the Gophers desperately pined for last year. Coffey missed most of the last Big Ten season with a shoulder injury.
The Hopkins alum was the driving force behind a comeback in each half. Before halftime, he scored 11 consecutive Gophers points to bring them from nine behind to four ahead. Then he picked up his third foul with 4:11 left in the first half and had to watch from the bench as Nebraska retook a lead.
It turned out to be his last foul of the game. Coffey proceded to play nearly-flawless defense on Nebraska’s James Palmer, who had been their scoring leader against Illinois in the previous game, but finished Wednesday’s contest 3 for 14.
“He got us on both sides of the floor,” said Nebraska coach Tim Miles. “Sometimes if a guy’s killing it on one end he might take a little vacation on the other, and Amir was really good on both ends of the floor.”
On the defensive end, he was rugged and functional. On the offensive end, he was — well, pretty much the same.
Using his nose for the rim in transition, as well as a dizzying repertoire of Euro-steps, herky-jerky accelerations and mid-air adjustments that would make James Harden nod approvingly, Coffey got to the basket at will, which translated to his 17 free throw attempts. Gophers analytics showed that Coffey drew a team-high 19.5 fouls in the game (don’t ask how they calculated a decimal).
If not for his bandaged right hand that seemed to betray his grip on a pair of missed dunks, Coffey might have threatened the Gophers’ first 40-point game since Andre Hollins in 2012.
His only other 30-point game came as a freshman against St. John’s in just his fourth career appearance when he scored 30. Coffey was stuck on that number when grad transfer Brock Stull threw an errant pass that got tipped and wound up on the other side of midcourt. Stull scrambled to track it down and found Coffey, who knifed to the basket for a layup that gave the Gophers an 81-76 lead following the near turnover.
“I thought he was great and he got where he wanted to,” said Miles. “He found people. Made tough shots. Got to the foul line. Kind of single-handedly kept Minnesota hanging around.”
The performance was in many ways dedicated to McBrayer, who chose to play after the loss of his mother, Tayra McFarlane. Nebraska honored her with “RIP Tayra” warm-up shirts, and the Gophers held a moment of silence before the game.
It was McBrayer who knocked down a long 3 at the perfect time to cut the deficit to one possession at 71-68. That was just the second 3 Minnesota made in the game. The third came from Coffey — after he took the charge, and before his driving layup that threw the crowd into delirium and gave McBrayer a fleeting moment to celebrate.
“That was in the back of our mind the whole game,” said Coffey. “We just wanted to be there for him tonight. We just fought for him.”
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