MINNEAPOLIS -- Sometimes it takes a loss to a good team to make you take a step forward.
That was the case for the Gophers bouncing back from their first loss of the season with Nate Mason's 26 points leading to a Big Ten opening 89-67 victory Sunday against Rutgers at Williams Arena.
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino definitely had some teaching points after Wednesday's 86-81 loss against No. 10 Miami (Fla.) at the Barn.
Some things like moving the ball and communicating on defense he had been preaching all season, but it didn't sink in as much with his players when they were winning.
After getting beat earlier in the week in front of a sellout home crowd, the No. 12 Gophers (8-1) regrouped to pick up their first conference win earlier than normal. Playing the Big Ten tournament at Madison Square Garden this year meant two Big Ten games in early December, which also includes Minnesota playing Tuesday at Nebraska.
Premature conference games when coaches are typically still working out the kinks might hurt younger teams, but the Gophers have a veteran squad already looking pretty close to midseason form.
Mason had 16 points in the second half Sunday, to go with seven assists. Jordan Murphy shrugged off three first-half fouls to record his national-best ninth double-double with 18 points and 16 rebounds.
Returning to the starting lineup Sunday was junior Dupree McBrayer, who missed Wednesday's loss with a leg infection. McBrayer, who had his right leg heavily taped, had seven points and four assists, but his presence defensively was also a lift.
The Scarlet Knights (6-2) led the nation in offensive rebounding entering Sunday and grabbed 14 in the first half. But Minnesota held them to just 28 percent shooting from the field for a 43-33 halftime lead.
The nation's top shot blocker Reggie Lynch, who finished with 16 points and nine rebounds, spearheaded the defensive effort inside with five blocks, including four in the first half. One of those swats led to a transition layup for Michael Hurt. On the ensuing possession, Mason hooked up with Murphy for an alley-oop dunk and a double-digit lead.
First-half highlights were abundant for the Gophers, but Mason's four-point play after being fouled on a high-arching 3-pointer made it 49-28.
In the second half, the Gophers started Davonte Fitzgerald over Murphy, who was in foul trouble. Rutgers tried to take advantage cutting it to 60-52 on Mamadou Doucoure's second straight jumper at the nine-minute mark.
But Minnesota pulled away again with an 11-2 run capped by Mason's four straight free throws to lead 71-54 after Rutgers was called for a personal foul and technical at 7:03.
Not only were the Gophers better defensively than in the Miami loss (Hurricanes shot 50 percent), but they made strides in sharing the basketball. Pitino cringed when his team only had 12 assists (three in the first half) Wednesday, but Minnesota already had 13 of its 23 assists on 15 baskets in the first half Sunday.
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