Gophers defeat Nebraska 85-78 for first conference victory

Amir Coffey’s 32 points powered a 13-point comeback

Nick Jungheim

After four neutral-site contests and two games on the road, the Gophers returned to Williams Arena on Wednesday night for the first time since November 12.  The Gophers didn’t have any time to get comfortable as they opened Big Ten play in need of a win after dropping their conference opener to Ohio State.

Minnesota (7-2, 1-1 Big Ten) trailed for over 30 minutes, but played with a sense of urgency in the second half to secure a 85-78 victory over No. 24/25 Nebraska (7-2, 1-1 Big Ten).  A high energy crowd of 9,624 was glad to see the Gophers grind out a victory in their return to “The Barn”.

“I thought the energy in the building was awesome,” said head coach Richard Pitino.  “Our fans were terrific, they carried us through in the second half.”

The visitors began the game scoring at will.  Nebraska made five of their first six field goal attempts to begin the game, opening up a 12-4 lead.  The Huskers maintained a steady lead until, with under nine minutes left in the half, junior Amir Coffey began to take control for the Gophers.

Over a stretch midway through the first half, Coffey scored 13 of 15 points for the Gophers to turn a 28-21 deficit into a 36-32 lead.  However, he picked up his third personal foul with 4:11 left in the half.  Without Coffey on the court, Nebraska regained momentum and lead Minnesota 44-39 at halftime.

Nebraska maintained control of the game after the intermission and throughout the first ten minutes of the second half.  They grew their lead to as many as 13 in the first three minutes following halftime.  However, a 12-4 Minnesota run cut the score to 71-68 with 4:39 to go.

“Obviously, our guys were just having to keep our heads up,” said senior Jordan Murphy.  “Knowing that we were down thirteen, they got a little stressed out.  We’ve got to keep fighting, keep rebounding, keep defending.  Obviously, it just worked out for us in the end.”

With three and a half-minutes to go, a pair of Murphy free throws gave the Gophers a 74-73 lead.  Nebraska turned the ball over on the ensuring possession and a Coffey three-pointer at the other end lead to an eruption of cheers from Williams Arena.  Minnesota wouldn’t relinquish the lead as they held Nebraska to just five points in the final four-and-a-half minutes.

“Great win for our guys to be able to battle back from thirteen in the second half.”  Pitino said.  “To find a way to a way to stop turning the ball over and get defensive rebounds.”

Coffey stole the show on Wednesday night, totaling a career high 32 points in 31 minutes played.  He got his teammates involved, dishing out six assists as well.  Post-game, Pitino asserted that Coffey should receive more recognition from national media, but Coffey didn’t seem concerned with outside praise. 

“I’m just going to keep playing,” Coffey said. “I’m not going to worry about whether [the media] talk about me or not. That shouldn’t be something I’m worried about.

Murphy also had a big night, scoring 18 points, including some clutch free throws down the stretch to clinch the victory.  He made some more history too.  After becoming the program’s all-time leading rebounder earlier this year, he recorded 13 boards on Wednesday.  The double-double was the 52nd of his career, a new Gophers record. 

Minnesota will not have to wait very long to play their next game at Williams arena.  They host Arkansas State on Saturday afternoon.

“It’s always good to play at ‘The Barn’,”  Coffey said.  “We have great fans that support us, give us energy.  To come home and get a big win means a lot.”