To say Jordan Murphy provided a significant advantage scoring in the post Friday in the Gophers’ season opener against South Carolina Upstate was an understatement.
He dominated like few big men have in recent history.
Still, offense wasn’t the reason Gophers coach Richard Pitino’s squad broke the school record for the biggest one-year turnaround last season, going from eight to 24 wins.
Defense was by far the strength of that team — and it was definitely missing Friday on the perimeter, where the Gophers gave up the second-most three-pointers ever by an opponent, 14.
It’s a good thing Murphy was way too much to handle in the paint, finishing with a career-high 35 points and 15 rebounds in the No. 15 Gophers’ 92-77 victory over South Carolina Upstate in front of an announced crowd of 10,836 at Williams Arena.
“More than anything, he’s really, really confident,” Pitino said of Murphy, who shot 13-for-22 from the field. “He’s got a great belief that he can score on the low block when we give it to him. He was making some really good moves.”
Murphy’s previous career high was 25 points in a victory over Iowa last season. He scored the most points Friday in a game for a Gophers player since Andre Hollins’ 41 vs. Memphis in the Bahamas in 2012, and the most in a home game since Quincy Lewis’ 36 against Indiana in 1999.
Reggie Lynch also had a double-double with 15 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks for Minnesota, which entered the season with its highest preseason ranking since 1993-94.
The Trojans’ front line of 6-7, 200-pound Ramel Thompkins and 6-6, 195-pound Carson Smith couldn’t hold their own physically against the Gophers’ 6-10, 265-pound Lynch and 6-6, 240-pound Murphy.
The Trojans, who led by four points in the first half, still cut a 19-point second-half deficit to 70-61 with a three-pointer from Thompkins with 7:33 remaining. But Murphy dunked and muscled his way to 15 of his 22 second-half points in the final seven minutes to put an exclamation point on the victory.
The San Antonio native was one of the Big Ten’s top rebounders in his first two seasons, but he averaged 11 points as a freshman and sophomore.
He’s a Karl Malone Award candidate — the nation’s top power forward gets it — but nobody could have predicted Murphy would have one of the best offensive performances in the Barn’s history Friday. He left the game to a standing ovation.
“I’ve worked on pretty much everything in the offseason,” Murphy said. “My overall game is more solid than it was last year. I’m starting to understand the game better from a mentality standpoint just doing what I need to do.”
Outside shooting was a struggle for the guards against a matchup zone defense Friday. Gophers starting guards Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer and Amir Coffey combined to shoot 8-for-24 from the field.
Highly touted freshman Isaiah Washington scored four points on 1-for-9 shooting and had a team-high five assists.
The Gophers never seemed in control until late, almost as if they were looking ahead to their first true test of the season in Monday’s Gavitt Tipoff game at Providence.
“We didn’t win like that last year,” Pitino said. “We cannot expect to score 92 points all the time. We’ve got to be able to defend.”
2017-18 men’s season opener
no. 15 gophers 92, south carolina upstate 77 Monday: 5:30 p.m. at Providence (FS1)