MINNEAPOLIS — Even with two of his teammates on the bench in foul trouble, Jordan Murphy knew he didn’t have to take the game over in the second half. He did it anyway.
Murphy had 23 points and 11 rebounds, and No. 14 Minnesota cruised past Western Carolina 92-64 on Sunday.
Five Gophers scored in double figures for Minnesota (4-0) as the Gophers used a balanced scoring attack to methodically build upon their nine-point halftime lead. Amir Coffey had 15 points, Dupree McBrayer scored 14, Nate Mason had 13 and Isaiah Washington scored 10.
Freshman Matt Halvorsen hit 5 of 7 3-pointers and led the Catamounts (1-3) with 17 points. Deriece Parks added 11 points.
Mason and center Reggie Lynch both picked up their fourth fouls early in the second half and played limited minutes the rest of the way. But that wasn’t a problem as Murphy had 15 points and 9 rebounds after the break and the Gophers pulled away after leading 42-33 at halftime.
Even though Murphy picked up his fourth straight double-double to start the season, he didn’t feel pressured to carry the offense without Mason and Lynch on the floor, thanks in part to the play of the other two Minnesota starters.
“I knew Dupree was shooting it really well and being really aggressive, and that’s the side of him we want to see,” Murphy said. “And Amir was doing the same thing so I didn’t feel a huge burden offensively. We were fine with our balanced attack.”
Halvorsen hit three 3-pointers in the game’s first three minutes, but Minnesota still got out to an early 21-12 lead.
“We did a good job of taking that punch and throwing a few of our own, and we did a good job of bouncing back,” Murphy said.
The Catamounts later cut Minnesota’s lead to 32-30 thanks to a backdoor layup and a 3-pointer by Parks. But Minnesota answered with an 8-1 run that included a thunderous dunk by Coffey on a fast-break give-and-go with McBrayer.
Coffey, McBrayer and Murphy each had four assists, demonstrating the unselfish play that Minnesota coach Richard Pitino expects from his team.
“We’ve got to get our guys to understand that we’ve got a lot of nice weapons, we’ve got a lot of nice pieces, but if you get consumed with (statistics), it’s amazing, you don’t play right and you don’t play well,” Pitino said.
Western Carolina: The Catamounts lost at Clemson by 28 points and were drubbed by 51 at Cincinnati, so this 28-point defeat wasn’t unexpected. They’ll be back playing fellow mid-major opponents soon, and that should provide a better idea of how the team measures up to its peers.
Minnesota: The foul trouble might have been a blessing in disguise for Pitino, whose team plays four games in seven days. The Gophers’ rotation goes 10 deep, and each of their five bench players was on the floor for at least 11 minutes on Sunday.
One game after allowing Niagara to hit 6 of 9 from beyond the arc to start the game, the Gophers let Western Carolina hang around by letting the Catamounts hit 7 of their first 9 3-pointers. That trend has to change as Big Ten play draws near.
“I think in the past, a couple of those games, teams were hitting tough shots,” said Pitino, whose team has given up 36 3-pointers in three home games this year. “At some point it’s just bad defense. . We’ve got to get our hands more active and we’ve got to trust the guys behind us.”
McBrayer said he’s ready for an increased focus on 3-point defense in practice this week.
“We were winning because of our 3-point field goal defense and rebounding,” McBrayer said, “so I think we as a team and Murph and me as captains, we need to make more of an emphasis on that.”
Western Carolina: Plays at Massachusetts on Tuesday night.
Minnesota: Hosts Alabama A&M on Tuesday night before heading to New York for the Barclays Center Classic. The Gophers will face UMass on Friday and Alabama on Saturday.