MINNEAPOLIS — Coaches aren’t usually concerned about a letdown in the first conference game of the season. But No. 12 Minnesota was coming off a hard-fought loss to a ranked opponent, and with lightly regarded Rutgers on the schedule Sunday, Richard Pitino had cause for concern.
Nate Mason, Jordan Murphy and the rest of his players put those fears to rest quickly.
Mason scored a season-high 26 points, Murphy had his ninth straight double-double to start the season and the Golden Gophers beat Rutgers 89-67 in the Big Ten opener for both teams.
Murphy finished with 18 points and 16 rebounds to extend the nation’s longest double-double streak. He came into the game leading the country in rebounding at 12.5 per game.
Four nights earlier, No. 10 Miami held off the Gophers 86-81 before a sellout crowd at a frenzied Williams Arena. Pitino warned his players that the atmosphere wouldn’t be the same on Sunday even though it was their Big Ten opener.
“It’s weird because you have to remind everybody because of the Miami game that there can’t be a letdown emotionally,” Pitino said. “I knew that the crowd wouldn’t be as big. That’s understandable, but … for us, these league games are very, very important.”
Reggie Lynch added 16 points, nine rebounds and five blocks for the Gophers (8-1), and Amir Coffey had 11 points and seven assists.
Freshman forward Mamadou Doucoure had 13 points and nine rebounds for Rutgers (6-2) and freshman guard Geo Baker had 12 points. Corey Sanders had 10 points, and Deshawn Freeman added 10 points and 12 rebounds.
Coming into Sunday’s game, the Scarlet Knight were leading the Big Ten in scoring defense at 56.3 points per game. But the Gophers had the league’s No. 1 offense at 89.4 points per game, and they wore down Rutgers with their up-tempo attack.
“We can’t give up 89 points on the road, home, or anywhere else,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikeill said. “Our defense wasn’t what I was hoping for in a game like this, and didn’t give us a chance to win.”
Minnesota led by 10 at the half, and Mason opened the second half by hitting back-to-back 3-pointers. The senior point guard later converted four free throws on a technical foul and a one-and-one as the Gophers stretched their lead to 71-54.
“When Nate hits a couple 3s back to back, it opens up the whole entire floor,” said Murphy, who played just 30 minutes because of early foul trouble.
Murphy had 12 points and nine rebounds in the first half, which included a thunderous alley-oop dunk off a feed from Mason. But he picked up his third foul with 4:28 left in the first half and sat out until the break.
The rest of the Gophers picked up the slack with their leading scorer on the bench. Mason converted a four-point play after drawing a foul as he sank a floating, one-handed 3-pointer, and Coffey added six points in the final three minutes.
The Scarlet Knights are the Big Ten’s top offensive rebounding team, and they lived up to their billing with 14 of their 17 offensive boards in the first half. Consecutive put-back baskets by Doucoure and Freeman gave them their last lead at 7-6, and Omoruyi scored three straight baskets inside as Rutgers kept it close through most of the first half.
But Minnesota kept the Scarlet Knights at arm’s length the entire second half, never letting the lead slip below eight points before blowing it open in the final 10 minutes, turning the loss to Miami into an important learning experience.
“I think we bounced back pretty well,” Mason said. “We took the coaching and learned from the film. Our defense was much better today, so it showed our strength.”
Rutgers: After winning just six conference games total in their first three Big Ten seasons, the Scarlet Knights faced a tough test in their Big Ten opener. It won’t get much easier with No. 3 Michigan State on deck, but with a young and talented roster, better times are on the horizon for Rutgers.
Minnesota: Miami was the first team to shoot over 50 percent against the Gophers this season, and Minnesota responded by holding Rutgers to 32.4 from the field. But it wasn’t just a cold-shooting night for the opponent. Many of the Rutgers misses came inside as Murphy and Lynch left no shot uncontested.
McBrayer missed the loss to Miami due to a serious infection in his leg. He was back in the starting lineup on Sunday and played 25 minutes. Pitino gave him credit for helping solidify the Gophers defense and the chemistry on the offensive end as well.
But even more impressive was his recovery after losing 19 pounds due to his illness, a staggering amount for a player listed at 6-foot-5 and 195 pounds.
“It was tough because he was in the hospital getting medicine, IV, the whole deal,” Pitino said. “I think we caught it early and hopefully he’ll be fine the rest of the way.”
Rutgers: Host No. 3 Michigan State on Tuesday night.
Minnesota: At Nebraska on Tuesday night.