Park of Cottage Grove big man Pharrel Payne picked up a scholarship offer from the Gophers in June, but he didn't realize how much it was the right fit until he learned more about the program.
"As soon as they offered, Pharrel was definitely intrigued," Park coach Mike Weah said. "He started to learn more about Gophers' history. It seemed like the whole state was excited knowing he got the offer and hoping he would make the decision to be a Gopher."
The 6-9 senior announced his commitment to coach Ben Johnson and the Gophers on Sunday after his second trip to campus on an official visit.
"It feels good and exciting that I will be playing in front of the home crowd and for coaches who wanted me," Payne said. "They showed up to every single one of my [AAU] tournaments and watched me play. That told me that they really wanted me. And it felt even more like home."
Payne became the U's second player in the 2022 recruiting class, joining Park Center guard Braeden Carrington, who committed in early August.
Osseo forward Joshua Ola-Joseph is scheduled to take an official visit with the Gophers on Wednesday and Thursday. Carrington's been working hard to convince Payne and Ola-Joseph to stay home.
"We got to know each other over the summer pretty well," Carrington said about Payne. "He's a physical big with great skill. He can shoot the ball. So, his all-around game is great."
Payne averaged nearly 15 points and 10 rebounds as a junior last season. A physically imposing force on both ends in the paint, he expanded his offensive skills in the offseason.
"I'm able to stretch the floor now," Payne said. "Come off a pick and pop. Shoot the ball and shooting the three. I can also put the ball on the floor much better than I could last year."
During a standout summer as one of the nation's most underrated post players, Payne earned his first Division I offer in mid-June from the Gophers. Texas A&M, St. Louis, and Drake eventually joined his offer list, as well.
Payne grew up in Cottage Grove, but his parents are immigrants from Cameroon. He's proud of his African roots and understands now how much his success means to their community.
"For my parents to come to the U.S. and now I'm fulfilling a dream to play [college] basketball, it hasn't really been done here," Payne said. "In the community now, I'm getting a lot of support."
Not since former Gophers standout Sam Jacobson played at Park in the early 1990s has the school produced a Division I player. Jacobson, who played on the U's 1997 Final Four team, also was recruited by current Gophers assistant Dave Thorson, formerly on Clem Haskins' staff.
"Ben Johnson and Coach Thorson have developed a great relationship with him this past two months," Weah said. "He has a lot of trust with them. I think that went a long way."
Minnesota Select coach and former Gophers player Mitch Ohnstad also helped Payne make huge strides on the court. His summer team wasn't a shoe-sponsored AAU program, but Payne helped Select hold its own against some of the best teams in the country.
"I just wanted to go a different route," Payne said. "Show people that it's OK to be different."
That decision in many ways reflects his choice to stay home and help rebuild the Gophers, who aren't likely done adding local 2022 prospects.
"It means a lot to be hometown guys," Payne said. "I talked to Carrington a little bit after he committed — and he told me, 'I'm next.' I told him to hold on, that it just might happen. What can we bring to the program as players? I'll say, wins."