CHICAGO, Ill. — For 37 minutes the Golden Gophers lacked the energy of a team that should be fighting for its NCAA Tournament life — or at least some security.
Then a three-minute stretch plus an inspired overtime effort rescued everything. Minnesota
- As outlined in Thursday morning’s preview, the Nittany Lions were favored to win and came in playing better basketball. They looked like the better side for large chunks of the game, particularly when found opportunities to cut off the ball and set up alley-oops or second-chance points. Mike Watkins had three dunks in three minutes in the first half, a tone-setting sequence that had the Gophers scrambling on defense from the get-go. Penn State found savvy ways to get their volume scorer Lamar Stevens in mismatches as he went for 24 points. Yet, Minnesota closed regulation on a 10-2 run with a bevy of tough shots and had a chance to win at the buzzer. Coffey missed a 3 at the horn but went on to score 13 in overtime as Minnesota stole a game they didn’t necessarily deserve to win. That’s a welcome change for Gophers fans after watching road losses at Michigan, Nebraska and Rutgers slip away.
Coffey for the win… Nope. OT. pic.twitter.com/qOfSAy7uef
— Sam Ekstrom (@SamEkstrom) March 15, 2019
- Foul trouble played a part as the Gophers sat their two freshman starters for a long stretch in the first half. Daniel Oturu played just eight minutes after picking up two fouls, while Gabe Kalscheur played just six. Matz Stockman and Brock Stull played 14 minutes and 12 minutes, respectively, but the Gophers missed Oturu’s offensive touch and Kalscheur’s outside shooting as they fell behind 34-30 at the break. Oturu became a factor in the second half with seven points, but also got bullied at times by Watkins, who dodged further foul trouble to be a force in the second half with 14 points and seven rebounds, but he was tossed from the game in overtime for leaving the bench during an altercation between Coffey and Jamari Wheeler. Overall, Pitino had more faith in Stockman down the stretch instead of the freshman Oturu.
- Sporting a new hairstyle, Amir Coffey reverted back the slump that plagued him in the weeks leading up to the end of the season — but still scrapped for ??? points and multiple key baskets at the end of regulation and overtime — two of them fast-break dunks. His had broken out in his final three regular season games, earning Player of the Week honors, but early on against Penn State Coffey found himself shooting contested runners or long jumpers late in shot clocks, as opposed to the controlled rim attacks and jump stops he utilized the previous handful of games. Though he grinded out double figures, he had his worst-career 3-point shooting game, going 0 for 5. But Gophers fans won’t remember that. They’ll recall his powerful overtime dunk and sharp free-throw shooting down the stretch.
- Dupree McBrayer was Minnesota’s most efficient scoring guard with 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting, leading the team at one point in scoring and hitting a critical go-ahead 3 in overtime (though he failed to register a rebound or assist until the very end). Getting strong games from McBrayer has been rarer during his trying senior season, and with Coffey and Kalscheur combining to go 8 of 23, McBrayer’s 18 points were a breath of fresh air.
- What does this mean for the Gophers’ tournament hopes? A loss likely wouldn’t have been crippling, but it would give fans (and the team) reason to sweat on Selection Sunday. While bracket experts projected the Gophers comfortably in the field before the loss, nobody truly knew how their resume would grade out in the current climate with the NET rankings being a new variable in the equation. After beating Purdue, several Gophers proudly declared they were in the tournament, but with an ugly loss at Maryland and a slip-up against Penn State, that wouldn’t have been a guarantee. Now it likely is as the Gophers reached 20 wins for the season.
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