For a Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s basketball team that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament last season, the loss to Middle Tennessee in the first round in March of 2017 might seem like a long time ago.
Imagine how it feels to be Eric Curry.
That was the last time the 6-foot-9 forward saw game action for the Gophers before a knee injury and surgery derailed his path. But Curry, a redshirt sophomore, made his return to the lineup Sunday as the Gophers (11-2) wrapped up their nonconference schedule with a 71-53 victory over Mount St. Mary’s (3-10) at Williams Arena.
“I couldn’t even sleep at night I was so excited to get back on the floor in front of the fans,” Curry said. “It was just a great feeling.”
Getting Curry back on the floor to play some game-time minutes was important, according to coach Richard Pitino. If the coach didn’t already know how much Curry was anticipating his return, a late-night text message took care of any doubts.
“I was sleeping, but he texted me at 1:45 in the morning,” Pitino said. “He said, ‘I can’t sleep, I’m so excited to play.’
“So, hopefully that kind of got the jitters out a little bit, and he can get back to work.”
Curry entered the game off the bench a couple minutes in on Sunday after the Gophers started the game with a 9-0 run. As Curry stepped up on the court and removed his warm-up shirt preparing to check in, he was greeted to a standing ovation from the 10,767 fans in attendance at The Barn.
He got right to work helping out with defensive screens. With 13:01 to play in the first half, Curry scored his first bucket since his 11 points against Middle Tennessee in March 2017 on a reverse layup off a fast break to put the Gophers up 13-9. He added another reverse layup late in the first half as he drove the hoop and accepted a pass from Jordan Murphy.
Curry got his feet wet in his return with four points (2-for-4 shooting), six rebounds and an assist in 17:31 on the court. After missing the first 12 games of the season following surgery in late October to reduce inflammation in his left knee, getting back into a game before Big Ten play starts was very important, according to Curry.
“Just to get my feel back,” Curry said. “The game is totally different than the practice. Just being able to run up and down the floor, to get the feel of the crowd and just the movement of everything.”
Curry showed plenty of promise with a strong freshman season in 2016-17, playing 34 games and averaging 5.5 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game. He shined in the Gophers’ 91-82 overtime win at No. 15 Purdue on New Year’s Day that season, scoring seven of his 10 points in overtime, including a clutch 3-pointer to take a nine-point lead with under a minute left in the extra session.
But during that summer he tore the ACL in his left knee, keeping him out for the entire 2017-18 season. It turned out to be the first blow in a series of injuries the Gophers sustained last season. He looked ready for a rebound year before it was announced just before the 2018-19 schedule started that he would have surgery on the same knee. The initial timeline was to keep him out 4-6 weeks.
Curry said after Sunday’s game that there were times when things got tough during recovery. He doubted his ability to come back, or thought he might have to redshirt once again.
“My teammates – my brothers – they helped me through everything,” Curry said. “My family, my mom, coaches, they kept my positive. They kept my head on straight.”
Teammates like senior guard Dupree McBrayer see the value in having Curry back on the court. First of all, Curry talks a lot out there, which makes things easier, according to McBrayer.
“On defense, we definitely need that,” McBrayer said. “We can switch a lot more things because he can guard guards.
“Having him out there, we can do different looks defensively.”
Pitino also looked at the team in more of a big-picture approach with Curry back in the mix. He’s looking to the leadership of Michael Hurt, Amir Coffey, Murphy, McBrayer and Curry to improve as a whole. He cited the season two years ago when the Gophers didn’t lose a Big Ten game in February on their way to the NCAA Tournament.
“Those five guys are the key to our team,” Pitino said. “Because those five guys know what it takes to win in this league.”
Curry’s comeback was a bright spot in a nonconference win which saw a few struggles from the Gophers elsewhere. Murphy, who didn’t have a field-goal attempt in the first half, ended up with 10 points after going 8 for 10 at the free-throw line. He just missed a double-double with nine rebounds. McBrayer led the scoring with 15 points and made 3 of 6 from beyond the arc. Freshman center Daniel Oturu kept his solid play going with his fourth consecutive double-double with 12 points and a team-leading 10 rebounds.
The Gophers outrebounded Mount St. Mary’s 42-34, but they had 14 turnovers in the game to just 13 for the opponent. Minnesota was up by 16 points in the second half before Mount St. Mary’s got close with a 10-0 run to make it 44-38. However, the Gophers were able to close out the game despite shooting just 4 for 19 from 3-point range and 42.3 percent overall in the game. They hit 23 of 30 free throws.
“Obviously, we’ve got to find a way offensively to get ourselves going,” Pitino said. “We’re really struggling to hit shots.
“It’s a matter of getting our confidence, getting our rhythm offensively.”