Jim Souhan
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With their overtime victory over Michigan on Sunday night, the Gophers are almost surely going to make the NCAA tournament.

They have meaningful down-the-stretch Big Ten games and conference tournament games and March Madness games in their near future, and their best big man tends to get called for fouls every time his dreadlocks invade an opponent’s personal space.

Eric Curry is suddenly an important big man on campus.

During the Gophers’ 83-78 overtime victory over Michigan, Curry, the freshman from Memphis, borrowed Reggie Lynch’s job and ran with it.

Curry’s spinning basket with 1:17 left in regulation gave the Gophers a 70-64 lead, and he finished with 12 points, five rebounds, an assist and no turnovers. He played an unplanned-for 35 minutes. Lynch played 13.

“Eric was terrific — made some midrange shots,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “He made winning plays.

“He’s only a freshman, so there’s a lot to be excited about with him. He’s performing in the clutch.”

Eric Curry game-by-game statistics

On one of the biggest plays of the game, Curry contested a rebound to give the Gophers a key possession with 30.4 seconds left and the score 78-75 during overtime. As the game ended, he hardly celebrated what might have been his most important performance for the Gophers. He limped as if he had sprained an ankle and walked without outward emotion to the end of the handshake line.

“Eric was terrific today in the second half,” Gophers forward Jordan Murphy said. “He’s a hard worker. He gets into the gym extra whenever he can. You saw that with the reps on midrange jump shots. He was on.”

Near the end of regulation, Pitino yelled at him for a missed assignment, and near the end of overtime he had a long conversation with point guard Nate Mason about another. Relying on a freshman to take on a bigger role late in a season isn’t ideal, but the Gophers haven’t had much choice.

They are 20-7 and 8-6 in the Big Ten. One more victory likely locks up an NCAA tournament bid and would mark a major leap forward for Pitino’s program, one season after one of the worst performances in Gophers basketball history.

Curry is the kind of player who has been and will be needed to enable success. The Gophers bench is not particularly deep in big men, and any foul trouble from Lynch or Murphy will require Curry’s presence.

Sunday night, the Gophers’ game plan early was obvious. They went to Lynch and Murphy to outmuscle Michigan’s big men, who are better shooters than interior defenders. The two scored the Gophers’ first 11 points.

Then Pitino subbed them both out, choosing to save Lynch’s inevitable fouls for later in the game instead of pushing his advantage.

I would have preferred to see Lynch remain in the game while he was dominating his matchup, but then he may have fouled out even more quickly.

Curry may look more like a basketball player than anyone on the Gophers roster. He is long, strong and agile, an athlete who can run and rebound. His shooting had left something to be desired.

Entering Sunday’s game, he was shooting 42.6 percent from the field and 20 percent on three-pointers. Sunday, he missed his only three-pointer but made all five of his two-point shots. Curry and Murphy were the only Gophers to shoot better than 50 percent from the field.

Curry’s rebounding also helped the Gophers outscore Michigan 17-0 on second-chance points.

“I think he’s got a pretty nice midrange shot,” Pitino said. “Probably his low-post game could evolve. But he’s got a little Gorgui Dieng — when Gorgui played for us at Louisville, he had that little midrange shot.

“For a freshman, he’s way ahead of where he should be. He can hit threes. He has good size. I’m really excited about him.”

It speaks well of Pitino that his team in general and a reserve freshman in particular have accelerated through the proving grounds of February.

Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com