Despite setbacks, Gophers’ Mason finishing career on top

MINNEAPOLIS — Nate Mason has finished his career with a flourish in his fourth year as the point guard for Minnesota, rising in the program’s record books with the performance of a calm, clutch and confident senior leader.

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The Gophers haven’t reciprocated.

This once-promising season took a sharp turn for the worse two months ago, when off-the-court trouble for center Reggie Lynch and a shoulder injury to small forward Amir Coffey took two starters off the court and sent the team into a tailspin it hasn’t recovered from.

Not that Mason hasn’t tried to steer them out of it.

“He works hard every day. He deserves success,” shooting guard Dupree McBrayer said. “Things happened and went the wrong way, but he’s still trying to get us to battle, still trying to lead the right way. There was no day he came in here not trying to work hard, not trying to get us to work hard.”

The Gophers (15-16, 4-14) are the 11th seed for the Big Ten Tournament in New York, where they’ll face 14th seeded Rutgers (13-18, 3-15) on Wednesday night. They’ll have to win five times in five days for the improbable, to put it politely, automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament after losing 13 of their last 15 games. The week after Thanksgiving, the Gophers were ranked 12th nationally in the Associated Press poll.

Earlier this month, Mason came across an old quotation, “Grow what you’re going through.”

That sure resonated with his unexpectedly discouraging situation, watching his college eligibility whittled away this winter.

“All the odds are stacked up against us right now, but just growing through this right now is going to help me, especially in the long run,” Mason said recently. “The hand hasn’t been dealt the best, but we’re making the best of the opportunity. We’re playing hard every game.”

McBrayer, a junior, has found himself in a wistful mood recently.

“It goes by quick. Nate, he’s one of my best friends. We’ve spent the past three years in the backcourt together. Now he’s about to leave,” said McBrayer, who’s been limited all season by a painful shin injury. “I’m going to be on my own for a little bit.”

Junior power forward Jordan Murphy called Mason the best leader he’s had in his three years with the program. The 6-foot-2 native of Decatur, Georgia, has nine 20-point performances this season, averaging 16.8 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, both career bests. He’s also shooting 39.5 percent from 3-point range, the highest of his career.

Mason recently moved into fifth, past Sam Jacobson and Kevin McHale, on the program’s all-time scoring list with 1,719 points. If the Gophers win a game or two this week and Mason’s shot is sharp, he could finish even higher. Randy Breuer (third place, 1,777 points) and Andre Hollins (fourth place, 1,765 points) are within reach. Mason will also finish third in in program history in 3-pointers and second in assists. He’s seventh in steals, one behind Trent Tucker.

He has also been playing through sore hips that have hampered him recently.

“He’s playing really, really hard,” coach Richard Pitino said. “There’s no feeling sorry for himself. A lot of things have happened that have been out of his control, so he’s been easy to be around in that sense because it’s hard for seniors. You don’t know how they’re going to handle it, but he’s been very, very good.”