MINNEAPOLIS – There likely were plenty in the announced crowd of 10,836 Friday at Williams Arena who showed up to watch the regular-season debut of Gophers freshman Isaiah Washington.
Washington, the No. 1 high school point guard from New York City and the Instagram legend of JellyFam fame, made only 1-of-9 shots from the field, and had four points, five assists and a turnover in showing that the transition to the Division I level is going to take some time.
Jordan Murphy, the Gophers’ junior forward, has been through that learning process. That enabled him to dominate inside in scoring a career-high 35 points (13-of-22 from the field) and grabbing 15 rebounds, including nine on the offensive end, in a 92-77 victory over South Carolina Upstate.
Murphy, whose previous career-high was 25 points against Iowa on Feb. 8, 2017, could have had a 40-point game but he missed six of his 15 free-throw attempts. Nonetheless, he exited the game with 39 seconds left to a standing ovation from a crowd that included a student section that, unlike a year ago, was full.
“I worked on pretty much everything in the offseason, and just making sure that my overall game was more solid than it was last year,” said Murphy, who had the most points in a Gophers home game since Quincy Lewis scored 36 against Indiana in 1999. “I’m starting to understand the game better just from a mentality standpoint. Just doing what I need to do. I think that’s just the main thing. I’m starting to understand it better.”
The Gophers began this season ranked 15th in the Associated Press (media) and USA Today Coaches polls. It’s the first time that Minnesota has opened a season holding a place in the rankings since 2009 and is the Gophers’ highest-ranking since 1993-94, when they were 10th entering the season.
Minnesota had plenty of faults with its game on Friday. The Spartans made 14 three-point shots, tying for the second-most the Gophers have ever given up in a game. Coach Richard Pitino blamed his offensive game plan for failing to address how the Gophers should have attacked South Carolina Upstate’s match-up zone but said the defensive faults lied with his players.
Those faults created problems, especially in the first half, and the score was tied 31-31 with 4 minutes, 46 seconds remaining in the half before the Gophers went on a 12-2 run right before halftime. The Gophers might not have been as sharp from the outside, but they were dominant inside against the smaller Spartans and finished with 46 points in the paint.
Murphy and fellow big man Reggie Lynch were the primary reasons for this success.
Murphy had a team-leading 13 points and seven rebounds after 20 minutes, giving him two more points than Lynch, who finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Murphy added 22 points in the second half. It was a big improvement on Murphy’s early-season play a year ago when he struggled to find his game on a consistent basis before getting on track in Big Ten play.
“He definitely looks like his body fat is lower,” Pitino said when asked if Murphy is stronger. “His shoulders are obviously so big. I think more than anything he’s really, really confident. He’s got a great belief that he can score on the low block when we give it to him. He was making some really good moves.”
The Gophers will need more of the same from Murphy – and an improved effort from several others – on Monday when they play at Providence. The Big East school opened with an 84-55 victory over Houston Baptist on Friday.
“Providence will be a different game, and I haven’t watched much of them, but I would assume different personnel and everything,” said Pitino, a graduate of Providence. “But that’s the way we needed to win tonight because (South Carolina Upstate was) in that zone. So we needed to scrap to get it done and he did that.”
Murphy, who is a team captain, also provided the type of leadership Pitino wants.
“I thought his leadership was terrific,” Pitino said. “He was the most vocal guy in the huddles. Now, he had 35 points. It’s easy to be a leader when you’re scoring the ball, obviously. But he was terrific. He was the loudest guy on the team. It wasn’t that way last year, but he was positive and picking other guys up.”