Bullet passes, long outlet flicks, no-look feeds in the lane — this was the Isaiah Washington the Golden Gophers recruited.
Just three days after getting benched in the first half against Arkansas State and not returning, the sophomore Washington delivered one of his most balanced performances wearing the Maroon and Gold in the Gophers’ 80-71 win over North Florida.
“He’s got the talent,” said head coach Richard Pitino, whose exasperation hit a boiling point on Saturday when he yanked Washington after an 0-for-4 shooting start. “It’s just a matter of his habits continuing to improve, but that’s what we saw when we recruited him — those dynamic plays. The passing was terrific, and he was smart today.”
How about 14 points, 13 assists and no turnovers to bounce back from arguably the low point of Washington’s up-and-down young career?
After playing just six minutes on Saturday, it looked like Washington was getting another message sent his way when grad transfer Brock Stull started in front of him Tuesday to replace Dupree McBrayer, who was away attending his mother’s funeral.
Coming off the bench, Washington brought a necessary spark on a night the Gophers needed it in their final game before a 10-day hiatus. If not for several misses around the rim by teammates and a 1-for-15 effort from 3-point range, Washington might’ve broken the Gophers single-game assist record of 16, set by Arriel McDonald.
“I just had to gain coach’s trust,” said Washington, “and hopefully I did that tonight.”
Washington had eight assists before he scored his first point — a reversal of his score-first mindset that had aggravated Pitino. The New York native kept the ball moving against North Florida’s zone and pushed it up the floor crisply off misses. His energy paired well with talented floor-runner Amir Coffey, who scored 13 of his 18 points off Washington’s assists.
“He has really great vision, court vision,” said senior Jordan Murphy. “He really knows how to get in the paint, so when you combine those two, it’s a great equation to have.”
In nine of his first 10 games this season, Washington had made two field goals or less despite shooting almost seven shots per game. He entered Tuesday’s contest shooting 24 percent from the field, but his 4 for 8 outing (6 of 8 from the free-throw line) kept the Gophers in front against a pesky North Florida team that stayed within one or two possessions most of the second half. He scored 12 of his 14 points after halftime, and his turnaround jumper with 4:06 remaining to put the Gophers up 67-64 acted as a turning point down the stretch.
“I think there’s games where he’s shooting a lot, and I’m not saying he can’t score — he can score,” said Pitino, “but he’s a really, really good passer. He’s really good at getting in the lane, and that’s what he needs to hold his hat on and be a high-assist guy and low-turnover guy and be kind of that high-volume assists point guard.”
It was Washington’s first career double-double and second game with 10 or more assists.
The former four-star recruit had been under scrutiny early in the season, not just for his underwhelming play, but for how it appeared to affect his body language. Pitino insisted that was just Washington’s natural demeanor rather than a reaction to his struggles on the court. The sixth-year coach has asked instead for Washington to commit to the daily habits that will earn him a more regular role.
“For him, it’s all about being the first one in the gym, last one to leave, and earning it every single day,” Pitino said.
If Washington carries Tuesday’s performance into Big Ten play, the Gophers may have fewer concerns about their muddled point guard situation. Productive minutes from Washington would not only lift the bench but give the Gophers a natural ball handler to run the offense.
“This a great group of guys,” said Washington. “Coach is a great coach, and I just have to find my way.”