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Gophers’ Jordan Murphy didn’t get the ending he deserved

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Richard Pitino took a timeout in an effort to stop the bleeding amid a 14-0 Michigan State run in the first half Saturday, March 23.

The Gophers’ players on the floor ran toward their coach in search of answers. The problem was, the one man who might have been able to resuscitate Minnesota’s Sweet 16 hopes wasn’t among them.

Slowly, Jordan Murphy made his way from behind the bench toward the Gophers’ huddle, grimacing with every labored step, using the Gophers’ bench seats to aid his efforts.

As he turned the corner toward the huddle, Murphy looked toward someone in the Gophers’ robust cheering section and appeared to say, “I can’t. I can’t.”

Murphy started, but he played just five minutes Saturday. It was obvious during pregame warmups that Murphy was laboring and unable to do much in the way of moving. Murphy could barely put his socks on Saturday morning and was struggling to get up and down the court as the Spartans raced past Minnesota.

“I at least had to try for my guys and show them I could at least try for them and give them everything I had today,” Murphy said. “I tried to play through it. Really couldn’t move. I was struggling out there. I just told coach I’d rather not be a hindrance to the team out there.”

The game’s first media timeout appeared to signal “curtains” on the All-Big Ten forward’s illustrious Gophers career.

That was not the end Murphy’s college career deserved. And Pitino knew it.

So, with less than two minutes left in the game and the contest in-hand for Michigan State, Pitino subbed Murphy back into the game, only to pull him out just moments later, giving the Gophers’ faithful an opportunity to send Murphy off in the proper fashion.

Minnesota fans rose to their feet and roared a “Jordan Murphy,” a moment that reduced the forward to tears.

The back injury rendered Murphy physically unable to even sit on the bench. He stood behind the Gophers’ reserve players for the game’s duration, leaning forward against a chair. But he stayed emotionally engaged throughout. He was in a player’s only huddle with the other starters in the moments prior to the start of the second half and was active in every timeout.

You’d expect nothing less from the man who served as this program’s heartbeat for the better part of the past four seasons.

It was Murphy’s freshman season when Minnesota won just eight games, embarrassing itself on and off the court. Over the next three seasons, Murphy played a major role in a program turnaround that resulted in two NCAA tournament appearances, including the program’s first tournament victory since 2013. He helped reinstate the public’s belief in the program, as evidenced by the hoard of Gophers fans who made the trip down to Iowa this weekend.

One of the biggest things Murphy learned at Minnesota: resilience.

“I don’t think it’s what I expected,” Murphy said of his career. “But life is what you make it. That’s my biggest thing. … I think I’m leaving (the program) in a good place. I think I’m leaving it better than when I found it, and that’s the ultimate goal for every player.”

Murphy wraps his career with a program-best 1,307 rebounds, No. 2 in Big Ten history, and 1,766 points, fourth-best in Gophers history. He is the most-accomplished player in the program’s recent history and might be one of its best ever. He was Mr. Reliable, never missing a contest in his four years. Saturday marked his 133rd straight appearance. The five minutes played marked a career low. Murphy is just 6 feet 6 and has a vintage game predicated on defense, rebounding and hustle.

His exact basketball future is a bit of an unknown, with this exception: He’ll be remembered as one of the Gophers’ greats. That’s a direct product of the heart and hustle with which Murphy played — qualities craved by Minnesota sports fans.

As he exited the court for the last time in the game’s closing moments, he was met by an embrace from his coach. Murphy was the backbone of the program Pitino has built at Minnesota, and the coach admitted it was hard to see his star forward not get a true shot to power his team to its first non-vacated Sweet 16 since 1990.

“He’s done so much, and never once has he ever embarrassed the program, never once has he ever not been about the team,” Pitino said. “He’s been a great representative for himself, his family and obviously for our basketball program. He’s a special kid. I’m going to miss him. He’s somebody that I consider family, and I appreciate everything that he’s given me, because he’s laid it all out there. Every ounce of sweat, he’s put on the line for this program.”

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