Gophers conclude nonconference schedule with 65-55 win over Harvard

MINNEAPOLIS — Dupree McBrayer has been the most overlooked player in Minnesota’s balanced lineup, hindered by injuries this season and often a secondary option on offense with two powerful post players to feed and two dynamic teammates with him on the perimeter.

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His value was on full display in the final nonconference game.

McBrayer returned from a two-game absence with 15 points on 3-for-6 shooting from 3-point range, a big boost for the backcourt with senior point guard Nate Mason sitting out to protect a sprained left ankle as the Gophers managed to grind out a 65-55 victory over Harvard on Saturday.

McBrayer missed the last two contests with a stress reaction in his lower left leg. He missed the game against Miami last month due to an infection in his right leg.

“He did a great job of stepping up. Pree is very talented,” said Jordan Murphy, who scored 13 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to post his national-best 15th double-double , one in each game.

Amir Coffey, who had 12 points and five assists for the Gophers (12-3), started the second half with a corner 3-pointer to push their lead back to double digits. The Crimson (5-8) didn’t fade despite their perimeter-shooting persistence, finally attempting their first free throw with 12:11 remaining in the game.

Freshman Isaiah Washington started in Mason’s place and grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds to help soften the blow of a 4-for-17 shooting performance from the field. Chris Lewis converted a reverse layup before a 3-pointer by Corey Johnson brought the Crimson within 45-42, but McBrayer coolly sank a 3-pointer at the 8-minute mark on the other end and Washington followed with five straight points to help the Gophers stay in control.

“I think he’s starting to figure it out, gaining more confidence, knowing when to break people down,” McBrayer said. “Because as a New York City guard, all you know is `Showtime’ and stuff like that. But coming to this program, we’ve got to do things a little differently, while still trying to add a little `Showtime’ into that.”

McBrayer had his own learning to do, coming from a similar background and style, but he has made steady strides and become one of the team’s best defenders.

“He’s important to us,” head coach Richard Pitino said.

HE SAID IT

Pitino on Washington, who went 1 for 9 in the first half: “It just seems like every time he touches it he shoots it. I said, `Listen, just keep getting to the basket.'”

OUT OF TOWNS

Johnson led the Crimson with 12 points, going 4 for 10 from 3-point range. The rest of his teammates were 3 for 22 behind the arc, including an 0-for-8 performance by Seth Towns, their second-leading scorer this season.

“We didn’t get a lot of confidence and momentum there with his offensive production, which we needed,” Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker said.

FRIGID FIRST HALF

The temperature outside Williams Arena at tipoff was minus-7 degrees, and the jump-shooting by both teams was just about as cold at the beginning of the game. The Gophers bricked nine of their first 11 attempts from the floor, until a steal by McBrayer sent him on a one-man fast break for a one-handed dunk to cut the Crimson’s lead to 9-7.

The Gophers finished a 16-3 run with a 3-pointer by Davonte Fitzgerald for a 20-12 advantage that held until the 6-minute mark, but with 29 points at the break they registered their second-lowest halftime score of the season. The Crimson, though, missed 12 of their 14 attempts from 3-point range in the first half.

BIG PICTURE

Harvard: After winning 20 or more games in six of Amaker’s first nine seasons, including five shared or outright Ivy League titles and two NCAA Tournament victories, the Crimson finished fourth and second in conference play the last two years. They were picked as the preseason favorite to win the league in 2017-18, but even given the fact that losses to St. Mary’s, Kentucky and Minnesota came to opponents with a combined 33 victories entering the weekend they’ve been unable to build any early momentum.

“I thought we fought. I thought we competed. I thought we tried to do things together,” Amaker said. “But we didn’t play well enough, obviously.”

Minnesota: The Gophers did exactly what they needed to do in the program’s first game against Harvard, avoiding further injuries and recording their fourth consecutive victory. Most promising over the last few weeks has been an uptick in production from a thin bench, with Hurt providing quality playing time on Saturday. The sophomore small forward has 25 points in the last three games.

UP NEXT

Harvard: The Crimson return home to host Vermont on Tuesday, before beginning Ivy League play with a game against Dartmouth next Saturday.

Minnesota: The Gophers resume Big Ten action next week with consecutive home games against Illinois on Wednesday and Indiana on Saturday.