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Gophers guard McBrayer playing well — and for his deceased mother

Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Isaiah Washington (11) and guard Dupree McBrayer (1) celebrate after scoring against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights during the second half Saturday, Jan. 12, at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. Harrison Barden / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- While it didn’t show up in the box score, Minnesota Gophers fans noticed when Dupree McBrayer played persistently stifling defense on Rutgers guard Geo Baker during one possession in Minnesota’s 88-70 victory Saturday, Jan. 12.

It was beyond the 3-point line and the shot clock was a non-factor, but McBrayer wouldn’t allow Baker a sliver of space to receive a pass. The crowd at Williams Arena showed its approval with cheers.

“Dupree is quietly playing very, very good basketball,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said Tuesday, Jan. 15, repeating what he first said Saturday.

McBrayer has been persevering after his mother, Tayra McFarlane, passed away Dec. 3, and against the Scarlet Knights, the senior from New York City played one of his best games as a Gopher. He posted his first career double-double with 15 points and 10 assists, adding four rebounds and a steal.

“I was hyped,” McBrayer said of a double-double that usually is more teammate Jordan Murphy’s domain. “I know how Murph feels now.”

While a focus has been on uncovering consistency from the Gophers’ best players -- Murphy and Amir Coffey -- the play of McBrayer has helped put Minnesota (13-3, 3-2 Big Ten) in a favorable spot when they play Illinois (4-12, 0-4) at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16, in Champaign, Ill.

McBrayer has been producing on both sides of the court. His defense was at a peak when he produced two late steals to help seal the Gophers hold back Wisconsin on Jan. 3 in Madison.

On offense, McBrayer has averaged 11.1 points per game and is one of five Minnesota starters scoring more than 10 per game. The Gophers are the only Big Ten team with that kind of double-digit balance from its starting five.

“Everybody’s a threat on the court,” McBrayer said. “You can’t just worry about one person. You’ve got to worry about the others. It can be anybody’s night.”

Some of McBrayer’s toughest nights came in late November.

On Nov. 25, McBrayer was in New York City visiting his mother, who was battling cancer. The next day, he took a 6 a.m. train to meet the Gophers in Massachusetts for that night’s game against Boston College.

“It was very sad because I came from New York City to see my mom, so I wasn’t really thinking straight,” McBrayer recalled Tuesday. “I had no clue what was going on up until I got the call a couple days later. But it was very sad. Maybe I should’ve went after the game, but thanks to Coach P for letting me go one last time.”

McBrayer gutted out 24 minutes of court time against the Eagles that night, but went 0 for 8 shooting from the field in the Gophers’ 68-56 defeat.

“Nobody really knew externally the gravity of what was going on with his family,” Pitino said. “It’s like anything else, nobody knows what somebody else is going through.”

McBrayer was stoic and decided to play in games after his mother passed away, especially two days later in Minnesota’s 85-78 victory over Nebraska. There was a moment of silence before the home game at the Barn, with tributes from Nebraska players as well as a hug and well-wishes from Cornhuskers coach Tim Miles.

On Dec. 11, McBrayer was back in New York for his mother’s wake and missed the Gophers’ win over North Florida. He returned a game later and played in the victory over North Carolina A&T. Postgame, the lighter side of his personality came out at the news conference.

Seated next to him at the podium, Murphy wore a black sweatshirt with the “Friends” TV show logo on the front. When the basketball questions ended, the media asked him about his shirt. Murphy said he was a fan of the show and particularly Jennifer Aniston.

McBrayer perked up and wiggled his eyebrows at his fellow senior, seemingly sensing that Murphy might have a crush on Aniston.

“I do think you can see the weight of the world isn’t on his shoulders as much as it was,” Pitino said Tuesday.

Through the grief, McBrayer is trying to enjoy his senior season. “Just playing basketball; that’s it,” he said. “I’m not worried about the future. I’m taking it game by game, knowing that this season is for my mom.”