PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Minnesota coach Richard Pitino left the Rutgers Athletic Center almost a year ago with a team in tatters.
With Joey King sidelined with a fractured foot, and then-leading scorer Nate Mason, Kevin Dorsey and Dupree McBrayer suspended for the season for violating team rules after a sexually explicit video was posted on Dorsey’s Twitter and Instagram accounts, the Gophers had just eight players available — including three walk-ons — when they traveled to Piscataway for the Big Ten regular-season finale last March.
The result was an embarrassing 75-52 loss to a lowly, seven-win Rutgers team gearing up to fire head coach Eddie Jordan.
The difference a year makes.
On Saturday, Jordan Murphy scored 17 points and had 11 rebounds to lead Minnesota past Rutgers 72-63.
“I don’t know if it was eight (players). It seemed like it was about three,” Pitino joked. “We don’t like to reflect when we lose. We like to reflect when we win. Last year was a challenging end. . That was really tough. I remember walking in here like, `Ugh, this brings back bad memories.’
“So now that we’re full strength, I think we’re a good team. So hopefully we’ll continue to get better. After 25 games, I love where we sit. I really do.”
Mason and Amir Coffey added 16 and 12 points, respectively, for the Gophers (18-7, 6-6 Big Ten). Eric Curry made all five of his shots and scored 11 points.
Rutgers (13-13, 2-11) was led by C.J. Gettys, who had a team-high eight rebounds, and Mike Williams with 14 points each. Corey Sanders added 13 points, five assists and five rebounds.
The Scarlet Knights, who trailed by 12 early in the second half, cut the lead to five after Williams hit a 3-pointer to make it 66-61 with 4:02 to play.
“We’re competing,” Williams said. “Like Coach said, it’s not the Rutgers that everybody had on the schedule and was like, `We have an easy W,’ and either you’re going to take this L or have a hard-fought victory. Nothing easy.”
Murphy fouled out at the 2:28 mark with Minnesota leading 68-61 and Rutgers again pulled within five, 68-63, on a Gettys tip-in with 1:44 remaining before the Gophers made four free throws in the final minute.
Pitino credited it to his team’s “next man up philosophy.” And the Gophers’ fourth-year coach feels like his team is hitting its stride at the right time.
“We’re playing our best basketball,” Pitino said. “It’s most important to do that in February.”
CRASHING THE GLASS
Rutgers came in to the game ranked third nationally in offensive rebounding at 15.16 per game and fifth nationally in rebounds per game at 42.0. Rutgers was outrebounded 40-34 and had 14 offensive rebounds.
Minnesota entered the game ranked first in the Big Ten and second nationally with 6.8 blocks per game. They had five blocks, with Reggie Lynch — who leads the Big Ten and is third nationally with 3.2 per game — recording three.
STRUGGLES FROM 3
Both teams struggled beyond the arc. Minnesota was 3 of 17 while Rutgers was 3 of 14.
Rutgers had a poor day from the foul line, going 10 of 22.
“We just got to make free throws,” Williams said. “We make free throws, the game is a little bit different.”
Minnesota: Ranked No. 24 last month, the Gophers followed up the ranking with five straight losses before reeling off three wins in a row. Minnesota is trying to up its seeding in the Big Ten Tournament and gain a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Rutgers: After starting the season 11-1, the Scarlet Knights have fallen to .500 for the first time under first-year coach Steve Pikiell.
Minnesota: Host to Indiana on Wednesday.
Rutgers: Travels to Purdue on Tuesday.