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Gophers basketball concludes nonconference schedule with win over Harvard

Minnesota Gophers forward Michael Hurt (42) drives in the second half against the Harvard Crimson guard Justin Bassey (20) at Williams Arena on Saturday, Dec. 30. (Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports)1 / 2
Minnesota Gophers center Reggie Lynch (22) blocks Harvard Crimson forward Seth Towns (31) in the second half at Williams Arena on Saturday, Dec. 30. (Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports)2 / 2

MINNEAPOLIS — Richard Pitino remained standing on the Gophers men's basketball sideline until the final minute of his team's win over Harvard finally concluded, ending a sloppy affair that offered little time for the head coach to relax.

In a dream world for Pitino, Saturday's game would have offered a more definitive win than their 65-55 victory over Harvard that required last-minute timeouts and made free throws for a double-digit advantage.

But after a weeklong holiday break, the Gophers concluded their nonconference schedule with a 12-3 record (1-1 in the Big Ten) even if Saturday's win lacked the style and pomp that the second sold-out crowd of the season hoped for.

Instead, Minnesota and Harvard traded bricks and missed shots in a defensive tilt that never truly felt in jeopardy for the Gophers, even as they failed to pull away in impressive fashion.

"You could tell offensively that it was a bit of a struggle for us," Pitino said of his team, which shot 33 percent. "I thought we were getting good looks, we were just missing some good ones. But I thought overall it was a really good win."

In their final contest of 2017, victory was all that Pitino's team sought in a final tune-up before Big Ten play resumes next week, a challenge made more difficult in the absence of Nate Mason, the all-conference point guard who watched from the bench because of an ankle injury.

In all likelihood, he'll be back on the raised court at Williams Arena for Illinois' visit Wednesday, good news for a Gophers team that rarely dominated in December the way many hoped they would earlier in the season when the Sweet Sixteen seemed more realistic.

And yet, a win Saturday meant ample opportunity still exists for the Gophers resuming Big Ten play despite a slip-up at Nebraska that cost Minnesota an early conference loss.

"We had a tough nonconference schedule," Pitino said, "but it was good for us and revealed a lot."

The Gophers exited their Saturday, Dec. 30, matinee pleased with a revamped defense that limited a mediocre Harvard team (which is now 5-8 on the season) to 33 percent shooting from the field.

Still, Harvard was within three points with eight minutes to play. An 8-0 Gophers run followed to help seal their victory, which came on a day few home players excelled offensively.

Dupree McBrayer returned from a leg injury to notch a game-high 15 points and was a much-needed source of energy with Mason out of the lineup.

"They want me to be aggressive," McBrayer said. "And I felt good."

Outside of him, though, the Gophers mostly slogged through inefficient offensive possessions.

Their best player, Jordan Murphy, continued his streak of recording a double-double in all 15 Gophers game this season, but even his 13 points and 12 rebounds came on 3 of 12 shooting. Freshman point guard Isaiah Washington started in place of Mason and notched nine points and a game-high 13 rebounds, but he too struggled shooting, making just 4 of 17 shots.

"It just seems like every time he touches it," Pitino said, "he shoots it."

With a struggling offense, the Gophers were forced to tighten defensively to earn their 12th win of the young season as they now prepare for the tougher task of 16 straight Big Ten games.

"Our identity is defense," McBrayer said. "If we play defense and get stops it doesn't matter if our offense gets stagnant. We just have to be able to lock down."