Minnesota and Rutgers entered their matchup on Saturday coming off of very different games. The Gophers fell to Maryland 82-67 at home on Tuesday while the Scarlet Knights defeated No. 16/17 Ohio State on Wednesday, their first victory against a ranked Big Ten opponent since 2015.
Despite the victory over Ohio State being Rutgers' (8-7, 1-4 Big Ten) first conference win of the season, Minnesota (13-3, 3-2 Big Ten) expected a challenge on Saturday. The game was competitive for much of the afternoon, but the Gophers pulled away in the last 10 minutes for a decisive 88-70 victory.
"We got over what happened against Maryland," head coach Richard Pitino told the media. "We understood what we did wrong and we did a really good job of beating their zone and then getting them out of it."
The Gophers began the game with a flurry of 3-pointers, connecting from behind the arc on their first three offensive possessions. The rest of the first half consisted of a series of dueling scoring runs. After trailing by eight points, Rutgers switched to a zone defense and cut Minnesota's lead to one. The Gophers then battled back and pulled ahead 27-18 with eight minutes to go in the period and held a seven-point lead at halftime.
While 3-point shooting has not been a strength of the Gophers this season — just over 30 percent from deep going into the game — Minnesota used outside shooting to their advantage in the first quarter. They made six of 11 attempts in the first half. Senior Dupree McBrayer made all three of his 3-point attempts in the half and freshman Gabe Kalscheur added a pair of his own.
"We're a good shooting team," Pitino told the media. "I mean, we're not a bad shooting team. I don't know if we're a great shooting team, but we're better than what we've been shooting. I thought we took really efficient [shots] tonight."
After the intermission, Minnesota's best players attacked the basket aggressively, just as Pitino challenged them to do following the loss to Maryland. Senior Jordan Murphy rode a strong performance over the final 20 minutes to a double-double with 15 points and 14 rebounds. It was his 10th double-double of the season but his second in conference play.
Junior Amir Coffey once again led the Gophers in scoring with 29 points. Among that total were a couple emphatic dunks that energized Williams Arena during a 19-5 run in the second half which sealed the victory for the Gophers.
"[Coffey is] just being aggressive." Pitino told the media. "He's starting to find his stride offensively and he's very efficient. He's doing a little bit of everything right now, he's a really good player."
Minnesota had its most success attacking the zone defense of the season thanks to terrific ball movement. The Gophers played unselfish basketball, amassing 24 assists on 29 made field goals. McBrayer dished out a career-high 10 assists to lead the team. Sophomore Isaiah Washington added five before being ejected with 3:48 to play for fighting with with Rutgers freshman Montez Mathis.
"I don't think it was a big deal," Pitino told the media. "The biggest thing is you're playing very well, you have to be smarter than that because you can't do anything that will allow you to come off the court."
Next up for Minnesota is a contest on the road against Illinois on Wednseday.