MINNEAPOLIS (AP) In the last game before Christmas break, most teams have two goals: win the game and stay healthy. Unfortunately for Minnesota, the Golden Gophers might’ve gone just 1-for-2 on Saturday.
Senior guard Nate Mason scored 17 points but missed most of the second half with an ankle injury as Minnesota defeated Florida Atlantic 95-60.
Mason, the Gophers’ second-leading scorer and a first-team all-Big Ten pick last year, went to the floor early in the second half after getting tangled up in traffic. After a visit from the trainer, he was helped off the court but didn’t put any weight on his left ankle.
However, Minnesota appears to have dodged a bullet – after Mason underwent an MRI on Saturday night, the team announced his status as ”day-to-day” with a sprained ankle. Still, coach Richard Pitino acknowledged that losing Mason’s leadership and productivity would be a tough pill to swallow.
”You don’t just replace Nate Mason,” Pitino said. ”I thought he was really good (Saturday) – 17 points in 21 minutes, he was efficient, he was defending and showing great leadership.”
Jordan Murphy scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for Minnesota (11-3), extending the nation’s longest double-double streak to 14 games. The junior co-captain said Mason was in good spirits after the game despite the injury.
”Nate’s the type of dude who when something like that happens, he just wants to deal with it on his own,” Murphy said. ”We’re going to be there for him for anything he needs.”
Gerdarius Troutman led the Owls (6-6) with 18 points, while Ronald Delph scored 17 and Jailyn Ingram had 12 points, five rebounds and four assists.
Amir Coffey and Reggie Lynch each had 11 points for the Gophers. Freshman point guard Isaiah Washington had seven points and eight rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench. He would likely see the bulk of the minutes at point guard if Mason isn’t ready to return for Minnesota’s next game on Dec. 30.
”It’s tough for any freshman to thrust them into that role,” Pitino said. ”Isaiah does a lot of good, and he’s got a lot to learn, too. He got eight rebounds, which was terrific. But again, we’re a better team when everyone’s healthy.”
Mason demonstrated his value to the Gophers offense immediately, connecting on his first three 3-pointers before the game was five minutes old. The third was part of an 18-0 run that staked the Gophers to a 28-7 lead.
During that stretch, Murphy displayed his diverse skills that have helped him emerge on the national scene this year. On the defensive end of the floor he wrestled a rebound away from the Owls’ big men, and on the ensuing trip down the court, Murphy took a pass at the top of the key and drained a 3-pointer.
The Gophers shot 55 percent from the floor, hitting 11 of 25 3-pointers.
Florida Atlantic: The Owls have played two teams from major conferences and have been blown out in both. Coming off a 90-54 loss at Texas Tech on Tuesday, the Owls were hoping for a better showing at Minnesota, but their defense wasn’t up to the test.
Minnesota: Losing Mason for an extended stretch would be devastating to the Gophers’ Big Ten hopes. The floor general is off to his best start as a Gopher, averaging 15.4 points per game and nearly four assists per turnover. Washington is the highest-rated recruit Pitino has landed since he came to Minnesota, but even at his best he’d have a hard time filling Mason’s shoes.
With a week off before their next game, the Gophers will take a few days away from the court to enjoy the holiday. And they can do it with a three-game winning streak in their pockets, which definitely beats the alternative, according to Pitino.
”I’ve been on the other side — to lose right before Christmas is the worst,” Pitino said. ”Fortunately we can celebrate a little bit and be with family and get those guys away, too, because they get worn down too, so it’s a perfect break for all of us.”
Florida Atlantic: At Florida International on Dec. 30.
Minnesota: Hosts Harvard on Dec. 30.