MINNEAPOLIS — In a game of runs, No. 14 Minnesota used the biggest and the last to pull away from a pesky Niagara team.
Amir Coffey, Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy all scored 18 points as Minnesota used a 17-0 run midway through the second half to top Niagara 107-81 on Wednesday night.
Lynch and Murphy posted double-doubles, with Lynch grabbing a team-high 12 rebounds and Murphy checking in with 11. Nate Mason added 15 points and 11 assists for the Golden Gophers (3-0).
Kahlil Dukes hit five 3-pointers and led Niagara (1-1) with 26 points. Matt Scott added 17 points and 11 rebounds, while Marvin Prochet had 10 points and 12 boards for the Purple Eagles.
Minnesota came back from a 12-2 deficit with a 14-2 run to lead by 10 at halftime. That lead eventually ballooned to 17 points before Niagara roared back with a 14-0 run that included 11 straight points by Dukes. The senior guard hit two 3s and three free throws in that span as Niagara whittled Minnesota’s lead to 65-62 midway through the second half.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino called a timeout, and his message in the huddle was simple.
“We just had to do a better job on Dukes and calm down,” Pitino said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of panic.”
Niagara eventually pulled within two points before the Gophers responded with a 17-0 run to put the game away. The decisive run included two 3s by Dupree McBrayer and a thunderous slam by Murphy off an alley-oop feed by Michael Hurt that brought the Williams Arena crowd to its feet.
“We were playing a little bit rushed at that point, so we just had to regroup a little bit,” Murphy said of the stretch preceding the Gophers’ big run. “Coach reminded us to be calm. He wasn’t really worried. That kind of instilled some calmness in us.”
Murphy, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week, was held scoreless through the first 10 minutes and finished the first half with just two points. But he came on strong out of the break, showcasing his diverse offensive skills in the process. Murphy drove through traffic for a layup, leaked out for a slam dunk on a fast break, and knocked down a baseline jumper for six quick points.
Still, on a night when all five Minnesota starters scored at least 13 points, Murphy allowed his teammates to carry the scoring burden until he found his offensive touch in the second half.
“Just having all of those weapons and knowing that anyone can have a good game on any given day . we’re just hard to guard right now,” Murphy said.
Niagara: The hot start and second-half comeback show that the veteran Purple Eagles won’t be intimidated by a highly ranked opponent. But their reserves contributed just six points before coach Chris Casey emptied the bench in the waning minutes. Niagara’s starting five is going to need more help if it wants to compete in the MAAC.
Minnesota: Point guard Nate Mason was a force when he was on the court, running the Gophers’ offense with a level head and picking his spots to attack the rim or pull up from outside. With 11 assists and zero turnovers on the night, Mason proved once again that he’s one of the top guards in the nation.
FILLING THE STAT SHEET
Lynch had fans buzzing about a triple-double down the stretch but he had to settle for nine blocked shots, not quite matching his career high of 11 set last season against Penn State.
“He surprises guys by blocking jump shots,” Pitino said. “They don’t see it coming, and he’s got a quick burst.”
Pitino added that the bigger surprise was Lynch’s career-best six assists, which the Gophers center admitted was a bit out of character.
“Everybody says I’m a black hole in the post,” Lynch said with a sheepish grin. “I’ve been trying to find guys driving to the basket more and kick it out more because Coach has emphasized that to me the past couple of years.”
Niagara: The Purple Eagles return to action on Sunday at UMass. The noon game is part of the Barclays Center Classic.
Minnesota: The Gophers host Western Carolina on Sunday afternoon.