Zulgad: Dupree McBrayer doesn’t let heartbreak keep him off the court

MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers men’s basketball team trailed Nebraska by six points with 4 minutes, 39 seconds remaining in the second half on Wednesday when Dupree McBrayer pulled up for a jump shot from above the key and hit a three-pointer.

This would have been business as usual for the senior guard from Queens, only these days nothing is business as usual for him. McBrayer’s mother, Tayra McFarlane, died Monday at 58 after a battle with cancer and the fact her son was even playing in this game was a tribute to the type of person she raised.

So following the Gophers’ come-from-behind 85-78 victory in their Big Ten home opener at Williams Arena — a win that came after Minnesota trailed by 13 points early in the second half — and following junior guard Amir Coffey’s career-high 32-point effort, it was no surprise that the primary focus was on McBrayer.

McBrayer made only 2-of-7 shots in 34 minutes and finished with five points, four assists and two steals, but coach Richard Pitino and his teammates praised McBrayer’s toughness.

“Every time he shot it I was just dying for the thing to go in for him, and then he hits that three at the top of the key and that was huge,” Pitino said. “I just wanted so badly for the ball to go in for him, just so he could feel good about himself, maybe just for a minute.”

Said Coffey: “For him even to play tonight shows you what kind of character he has, what kind of person he is.”

McFarlane worked for more than 20 years as a prison assistant warden at Rikers Island. Because McBrayer’s brothers are more than 10 years older than him, he told the Star Tribune earlier this season that his mother was his parent, his best friend and his role model. She was the one who introduced McBrayer to basketball.

It’s heart-breaking to see,” an emotional Pitino said after the game. “She was a great lady and one of my favorite moms and she was supportive. She was a cool lady and raised a great kid. I don’t care about basketball, she raised a really, really good kid. She told me over the summer, she said, ‘Coach, I’m retiring.’ I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘I want to see Dupree play his senior year.’ So that’s hard.”

McBrayer had plenty of support on Wednesday. The crowd of 9,624 fans wasn’t large but it was extremely vocal and was behind McBrayer on every shot he took. Nebraska coach Tim Miles had his players wear warmup shirts that carried a tribute to McFarlane on them.

“Think about what Dupree … he finds out Monday that his mother passes Monday,” Pitino said. “I tell him to stay home, don’t go to practice. We FaceTimed and he said he was with his girlfriend. I said, ‘Whatever you need, we want to help you. You don’t need to play, don’t worry about basketball.’ He said to me, he’s like, ‘Coach, I’ll be there tomorrow at practice.’ We talked afterwards, I just said, ‘How did it feel to get away from all that just for a little bit?’ But, obviously, he was emotional.”

The Gophers were coming off a 79-59 loss on Sunday at Ohio State in their Big Ten opener — Minnesota will now play four nonconference games before resuming conference play on Jan. 3 at Wisconsin — and it looked as if early in the second half that the Gophers would fall to 0-2 in the Big Ten against 24th-ranked Nebraska.

But the Gophers (7-2 overall) came all the way back to take a one-point lead on a pair of Jordan Murphy free throws with 3:01 left and Coffey then knocked down a three to make it 77-73 with 2:26 remaining.

“I just think they showed heart,” Pitino said of his team. “I told them before the game, I said, ‘Listen guys, I’m not going to be the coach to say, ‘Win one for Dupree.’ That just feels selfish to me. I just said, ‘Play as hard as you possibly can for Dupree.’ I thought they did that and that’s the best way to do it.

“We’ve all unfortunately dealt with tragedies, probably nothing like this, maybe somebody has. But, unfortunately, what happens is when it happens people are supportive for a day or two and then they resume their life. It’s normal. I told our guys, ‘Just understand what he’s going through and be there for not just now, but any little thing you can do to help him, be there for him and they were.'”

Murphy, who finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds, acknowledged it was an emotional scene at the end of the game.

“That was a great feeling just knowing we could get that for Dupree, knowing what he’s going through,” he said. ” … He hit a big shot down the stretch. We were so proud of him. To do what he’s doing right now is next to impossible. I can’t even imagine what he’s going through. I’m just proud of him. Proud of knowing him for as long as I have and just know it’s been a pleasure playing with him. He’s definitely one of the toughest guys I have even known.”