Amir Coffey’s 32 helps Gophers through emotional 85-78 win over Nebraska
MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers coach Richard Pitino’s eyes welled with tears and his voice cracked when relaying Tayra McFarlane’s interrupted plan.
The mother of Minnesota shooting guard Dupree McBrayer was retiring last summer as a corrections officer at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail. Pitino didn’t know why.
“She said, ‘I want to see Dupree ... play his senior year,’ ” Pitino struggled to say, “so that’s hard.”
McFarlane passed away Monday after a battle with cancer. On Wednesday, McBrayer played in her honor.
With “RIP MOM” and a small black heart scribbled on his red, white and blue Nikes, McBrayer willed his way to play 34 minutes and made a key three-pointer as the Gophers mounted a 13-point comeback in a 85-78 win over No. 24 Nebraska at Williams Arena.
The Gophers had “TM” patches on their jerseys, and the Cornhuskers wore “RIP Tayra” shooting shirts during warmups. There was a pregame moment of silence for McFarlane and a point during the telecast when the Big Ten Network cut to McBrayer, who had a blank look in his eyes.
McBrayer’s long-range shot cut the Cornhuskers’ lead to 71-68 with less than five minute left, and he pointed to the sky afterward. It left Nebraska coach Tim Miles considering more than the next possession.
“That was quite a moment,” Miles said. “I couldn’t help but think for a brief moment what that was about.”
Pitino removed any expectation for McBrayer to play about 48 hours after his mother died, but McBrayer told his coach he would play in the Big Ten Conference home opener.
“For him to even play tonight shows you what kind of character he has and what kind of person he is,” said guard Amir Coffey said.
Pitino tried to also remove any sort of goal to win the game for McBrayer and instead instructed his team to just “play as hard as you possibly can” for one of their captains.
“I thought they did that,” Pitino said.
The win also had meaningful layers for the Gophers’ young season. Pitino has sought an element of toughness within his team’s identity this season, something lacking in defeats in two of their past three games.
But Minnesota earned a split in its early-season two-game foray into Big Ten play, bouncing back after a 79-59 loss to then-No. 16 Ohio State in Columbus on Sunday.
The Cornhuskers (7-2, 1-1) were off to the program’s best start in 15 seasons, so Minnesota’s victory could look good come NCAA tournament time.
Coffey was at his grittiest Wednesday. He set a career high with 32 points but also added defensive deflections and drew a charge as the Barn erupted over his late efforts.
Before Wednesday, the Gophers (7-2, 1-1) had two road defeats, so they welcomed a return to the Barn after 22 days since their last home game, a 78-69 win over Utah on Nov. 12.
Coffey’s attacking will produced many trips to the free-throw line, and he finished 14 of 17 from the stripe. He went 8 for 16 from field-goal range including 2 of 3 from 3-point distance.
The Cornhuskers’ defense has led their strong start; Nebraska ranks in the top 15 in the nation in field-goal defense, scoring defense and blocks per game.
But the Gophers were able to shoot 52 percent from the field, bouncing back from rough shooting nights in losses to the Buckeyes and Boston College.
“Happy to get the win,” Pitino said, “and happy that maybe we brought a little peace for (McBrayer) tonight.”
The Gophers honored senior forward Jordan Murphy as the program’s leading rebounder before the game. Murphy passed Mychal Thompson (956) and Kevin McHale (950) in the 80-66 win over Santa Clara on Nov. 20 in the Vancouver Showcase. He became the 14th player in the Big Ten to amass more than 1,000 rebounds during the loss to Ohio State on Sunday. Murphy added 19 points and 13 rebounds Wednesday.