MINNEAPOLIS — It is rare that a conference opener, at home, is a potential letdown game, but that was what Minnesota coach Richard Pitino had to guard against this weekend.
His efforts to remind the team that the “big game” of the week was on Sunday were successful as Nate Mason led the way with 26 points for 12th-ranked Minnesota, which bounced back from its first loss of the season, opening conference play with an 89-67 win over Rutgers on Sunday.
Jordan Murphy, the three-time winner of the Big Ten’s player of the week award, had 18 points and led all rebounders with 16 for the Gophers (8-1, 1-0 Big Ten). Minnesota led by 10 at the start of the second half, and were able to pull away from an aggressive Rutgers team late.
“I think we bounced back pretty well,” Mason said. “We took the coaching and learned from the film. Our defense was much better today, so it showed our strength.”
Rutgers (6-2, 0-1) got 13 points and nine rebounds from Mamadou Doucure, while Geo Baker had 12 points. Deshawn Freeman added 10 points and 12 boards.
The Scarlet Knights lost their second consecutive game, due in large part to a rough shooting night. Rutgers hit just 32.4 percent for the game, and Minnesota, which leads the nation in blocked shots, swatted away eight shots.
“It’s just the first (conference) game. We’ve got a lot more to go,” Doucure said. “We’re not going to worry about this one. We lost, and we’re going to move on. Learn from it.”
The Rutgers coach was more concerned about his team’s defense than the trouble shooting.
“We can’t give up 89 points on the road, home, or anywhere else. Our defense wasn’t what I was hoping for in a game like this, and didn’t give us a chance to win,” Steve Pikiell said. “You have to play great defense against a team like this. We struggled all night and didn’t play Rutgers defense. We’re one of the best defensive teams in the country and didn’t show that tonight. One of our poorest defensive outings in a while.”
Minnesota got good news even before the opening tip, with junior guard Dupree McBrayer returning to the starting lineup. He had missed the Gophers’ previous game, an 86-81 home loss to 10th-ranked Miami on Wednesday, due to an infection in his right leg. McBrayer played 25 minutes Sunday and scored seven points despite losing 19 pounds while battling the illness last week.
The Gophers got back-to-back slam dunks in the final minute of the half to lead 43-33 at the break. Murphy, who sat out the final four minutes of the half after picking up his third foul, led all scorers with 12 first-half points, while sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi came off the bench to lead the Knights with eight. Rutgers had eight offensive rebounds in the first four minutes and 14 in the half.
“I knew that the crowd wouldn’t be as big,” Pitino said, after Williams Arena was sold out and raucous for the Miami loss, but considerably quieter for the Big Ten opener. “That’s understandable, but we had to understand that it’s more important.
“Something about a number in front of a name really gets the common fan excited. I’m not sure why. But for us, these league games are very, very important, and it’s weird. It’s December 3, it’s weird. But you have to win your league games at home. It’s very hard to win on the road in this conference, so 1-0 is huge for us.”
NOTES: The Gophers’ home court, Williams Arena, and the Scarlet Knights’ former home court, College Avenue Gym, are both nicknamed “The Barn.” ... Rutgers’ next game is the Knights’ Big Ten home opener when they host third-ranked Michigan State on Tuesday. ... Minnesota’s next action will be its first Big Ten road game, when the Gophers travel to Nebraska on Tuesday. ... There are no Minnesotans on the Rutgers roster, but Gophers freshman G Jamir Harris hails from just south of the Rutgers campus in North Brunswick Township, N.J.