Murphy, Gophers overpower SC Upstate in opener
MINNEAPOLIS — Jordan Murphy sure got his junior year off to a good start.
The Gophers are eager to see how much higher he can take his game.
Murphy scored a career-high 35 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, Reggie Lynch added 15 points and 10 rebounds and 15th-ranked Minnesota overpowered South Carolina Upstate in the season opener for a 92-77 victory on Friday night.
With two-handed slams and soft put-backs, Murphy gave the Gophers their antidote to a wing-heavy Spartans team that went a whopping 14 for 31 from 3-point range to tie for the second-most makes against Minnesota in history.
“He’s got a great belief that he can score on the low block when you give it to him,” coach Richard Pitino said, “and he’s making some really good moves.”
The Gophers owned a 54-35 rebounding advantage and outscored the Spartans 46-18 in the paint, pulling away right before halftime following a sluggish start. After Malik Moore swished a 3-pointer for the Spartans with 4:46 left in the first half to tie the game at 31, the Gophers took over. Following a 3-pointer by Amir Coffey and a free throw by Murphy, who went 9 for 15 from the line, Michael Hurt found Murphy with a slick high-low pass right before the buzzer for a layup and a 43-33 lead.
“Touches aren’t really a big thing for me so if they find me, they find me. If they don’t, I’m just going to be there to clean it all up at the end,” Murphy said.
Lynch, a fifth-year senior, jokingly called Murphy his son. Then he labeled him his foreman.
“We feed off each other really well,” Lynch said.
Moore, one of three returning starters for the Spartans this season, scored 22 points. Jure Span added 19 points on 5-for-6 shooting from 3-point range, where the Spartans at least gave themselves a chance in the first half.
“I was proud of the fact they didn’t get down on themselves and they kept competing,” Spartans coach Kyle Perry said. “They kept fighting. They stayed together.”
The Gophers did, too, and Murphy was the glue.
“It’s easy to be a leader when you’re scoring the ball obviously, but he was terrific,” Pitino said. “He was the loudest guy on the team.”
Minnesota freshman Isaiah Washington, who as the Mr. New York Basketball award winner has given the Gophers one of their most heralded recruits in years, received a rousing ovation when he entered for the first time for Dupree McBrayer early in the first half. Washington often played next to the senior captain Nate Mason, who had 11 points, to give the Gophers two natural point guards on the floor.
Washington finished with just four points on 1-for-9 shooting, including 1 for 7 from 3-point range. He added five assists in 23 minutes. Pitino attributed the struggle to South Carolina Upstate’s matchup zone defense that was a new look for most of the Gophers.
USC? NO, IT’S SCU
South Carolina Upstate, which finished 17-16 in 2016-17, was picked to finish fourth in the eight-team Atlantic Sun in the conference’s preseason coaches’ poll. The school formerly known as South Carolina Spartanburg became a provisional NCAA Division I member 10 years ago after appearing in six NCAA Division II tournaments between 1991 and 2006.
South Carolina Upstate: This was the debut as head coach Perry, who was an assistant for the past eight seasons before being promoted on Oct. 3 when Eddie Payne resigned at age 66 after 15 years running the program following a second ankle replacement surgery this summer.
Minnesota: The Gophers began their fifth season under Pitino with the program’s highest hopes in 20 years since coming off the lone Final Four appearance that preceded the academic fraud scandal that took several seasons to recover from.
South Carolina Upstate: The Spartans fell to 0-5 against teams from the Big Ten, since the transition.
Minnesota: The Gophers won their season opener for the 20th time in the last 21 years. They’re 93-24 all-time in lid-lifters.
South Carolina Upstate: The Spartans return home for a game on Sunday afternoon against Allen, an NAIA university. Then they face another power conference team, at Georgia on Tuesday night.
Minnesota: The Gophers play at Providence, Pitino’s alma mater, on Monday night in the Gavitt Tipoff Games, the third annual eight-game slate of matchups between Big Ten and Big East teams. The first two editions produced 4-4 splits between the two conferences. Minnesota beat St. John’s in the event last season, but Providence has made four straight NCAA Tournament apperances.
“I can’t remember playing this tough of a road game so early, so our guys have got to wake up and be ready to roll,” Pitino said.