Minnesota handles Nebraska-Omaha in season opener

Gophers play team basketball to capture first win.

Freshman guard Amir Coffey drives the ball up the court on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017 at the Sports Pavilion. 

Chris Dang, Daily File Photo

Freshman guard Amir Coffey drives the ball up the court on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017 at the Sports Pavilion. 

Nick Jungheim

On Tuesday, people across the country gathered at polling stations to cast their votes in the midterm elections. However, voting was not the only thing people gathered for. November 6 also marked the return of college basketball season. 

Williams Arena was the site of one such contest, as the Gophers (1-0) defeated Nebraska-Omaha (0-1) 104-76 to begin the 2018-19 campaign.

“Positives were, ball movement was really, really good,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “Twenty-eight assists, that’s a lot, and to leave 18 turnovers out there, I think offensively we could be pretty good, and we still have a long way to go.” 

Minnesota came out of the gates firing on all cylinders, taking a 14-3 lead. Omaha didn’t make a field goal until Zach Jackson hit a tough shot over junior Amir Coffey with 13:25 to play in the first. However, once that bucket fell, the Mavericks caught fire and took a 19-18 lead four minutes later.

The game went back-and-forth until senior Dupree McBrayer hit a go-ahead jumper to put the Gophers ahead 27-26. From there, Minnesota never looked back. They went on a 23-5 run over the final 5:22 of the half, punctuated by Coffey, who drew a foul on a 3-point attempt with 0.8 seconds remaining. He hit all three free throws and the Gophers went into the locker room up 50-31.

Minnesota was clearly glad to have Coffey back after a shoulder injury cost him much of the 2017-18 season. Seeing increased playing time at the point, he led the team with 18 points.  

“We have some calming influences on the court, and [Coffey] is definitely that,” Pitino said. “That’s important when you’re looking at a point guard. … [Coffey] never, ever seems rattled.”

McBrayer also dealt with injuries last season. Now fully healthy, he had a strong night from behind the arc, hitting five of six three-point attempts. The sharp-shooter enjoyed his final season-opener.

“I’m extremely happy,” McBrayer said. “I’m having a lot of fun, I’m smiling, just like I was two years ago. I’m playing with a lot of confidence right now, and credit to my teammates for getting me confident early.” 

Omaha never threatened in the second half, and Pitino was able to get all of his players significant playing time. Minnesota experimented with different lineups over the final 20 minutes as the Gophers cruised to a 28 point victory.

Jordan Murphy, who regularly posted double-doubles last season, picked up right where he left off last season when he tied Deandre Ayton for the nation’s lead in that category with 24. Murphy totaled 12 points and 10 boards in 24 minutes of playing time.

One of the night’s most impressive stats came from freshman Daniel Oturu, who made his first start for Minnesota. The big man brought down five offensive rebounds, all in the first half. He had eight boards overall to go along with 14 points. 

“I think he’s going to be special, I really do,” Pitino said of Oturu. “He’s one of the more underrated, when you talk about these big time recruits, he’s probably not talked about in that category, but he’s going to be terrific.”

Even though the game wasn’t close, there were still exciting moments in the second half. Not once, but twice, sophomore Isaiah Washington brought The Barn to its feet after connecting with freshman Jarvis Omersa for flying dunks.

“It was a great feeling,” Washington said. “I know [Omersa], me and him have been talking about it for a long time, and now that we had the opportunity, it was a great feeling.”

Minnesota will face a step up in competition when they next take the court against Utah at Williams Arena on Nov. 12.