Gophers' Senior Leadership on Display in Dramatic Win Over Penn State

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA Today Sports)

CHICAGO, Ill. — With under five minutes left and the Minnesota Golden Gophers down by eight, Richard Pitino was running out of solutions. The head coach seemed more agitated than usual as his team struggled to match the energy of the Penn State Nittany Lions, who were winning board battles and races to 50/50 balls with regularity.

“We were zombies, we were walking around,” said Pitino, whose team trailed for all but a minute of regulation. “Every huddle was like me trying to get them going.”

The energy injection needed to come from within, it seemed, as Pitino’s urging from the bench fell on deaf ears. So the Gophers’ two most prominent seniors — both admittedly more walk-the-walk types than talk-the-talk — took command.

“[Dupree McBrayer] turned to me and said, ‘You need to relax,’ and I turned to him and I said, ‘No, you relax,'” said Pitino, “But he was right. I needed to relax. But that’s confidence. When you have a relationship like that, it’s very, very strong.”

McBrayer handled the head coach, while Jordan Murphy handled the rest of the roster, taking charge in a huddle with 3:59 remaining and sparking the Gophers. Just in time.

“I think I told the guys that we were pretty much acting like we were down 20 when we were only down four or six at that point,” said Murphy after the game. “We just needed more energy, we needed more life, and that was something that I think sparked a lot of our guys. I told them to stay confident, and plays just started happening.”

“All of a sudden,” — Pitino snapped his fingers — “light came on.”

Out of the huddle Amir Coffey converted on a breakaway dunk. Then Murphy came down two possessions later and tied the game at 59-59 with a difficult layup, part of his 22nd double-double — 15 points, 14 rebounds, five assists.

“Murph stepped up and spoke,” said McBrayer, “and we followed behind him.”

With just over a half a minute to go, McBrayer drained a stepback jumper to tie the game once more at 61. He added a go-ahead 3-pointer in overtime as the Gophers pulled away to win 77-72 and head to the conference tournament quarterfinals against Purdue. The senior finished 6 of 11 from the floor.

“He was awesome down the stretch,” said Pitino. “That’s what a senior captain’s all about.”

It was objectively McBrayer’s best game of the season. The senior, who dealt with the death of his mother early in the season, hadn’t scored more than 10 points in the last 15 conference games. His 18 points was a season high, his best effort since scoring 24 points Jan. 15, 2018 against Penn State. It was another emotional pick-me-up in a season that has provided McBrayer with an outlet through which to pay tribute to his mother, Tayra, for whom the Gophers have worn patches all season.

First, there was the key 3-pointer he hit to seal a win against Nebraska within a week of her passing. Then his 14 points in a road win at Wisconsin. Then the Senior Night upset of Purdue. And now this, the team’s first postseason win since 2017.

“What’s been awesome about Dupree, he goes through losing his mother, he’s been appreciative of everything and then just the way he was able to maturely move on,” said Pitino. “I wouldn’t be able to do that in college. And honor his mother the right way. You know she’s watching. She’s proud of him.”

The Gophers needed McBrayer more than ever on a night when Coffey and Gabe Kalscheur shot 35 percent from the field and big men weren’t drawing fouls in a relatively whistle-less second half. The Gophers are 5-2 in conference when McBrayer scores in double figures. He’s the complementary scorer the Gophers need to make a postseason run.

“I thought it was a really physical battle and both teams played really hard,” said Murphy, whose second-half defense helped get critical stops. “And obviously it gets a little rough down there, and just to be able to finish around the basket, I think Amir and Dupree both did a great job.”

For the final 15 games of conference play, McBrayer shot below 30 percent from the field and below 25 percent from the 3. Pitino, however, never lost sight of McBrayer’s potential, nor the fact that he was still grieving the loss of his mother.

McBrayer paid back Pitino’s good faith on Thursday.

“Coach P, when I was playing bad he could have made some changes,” McBrayer said, “but he stuck with me.”

Both seniors delivered by using their words to rally a fading team — then stuck by them with dual performances to remember.

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