Six minutes into the second half it all began to fall apart. A missed lay up, a bad pass, bad shot selection, and seemingly every time down the court, Danny Morrissey would hit a wide open three pointer. What had been a three point Penn State half time lead had quickly ballooned into a 16 point blow out, and there was a real danger it would get much, much worse. Most frustrating was that the Nittany Lions hadn’t done anything spectacular. The Gophers were simply beating themselves against a beatable team. But freshman will be freshman, at least for Penn State.
In an attempt to place the final nail in the coffin way to early in the game, Penn State freshman guard Talor Battle badly missed a wide open dunk (he missed it about a foot to the right, something I haven’t seen before). It was as if the missed dunk were a signal to Minnesota’s talented freshman duo Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber to not play like that. Suddenly Hoffarber couldn’t miss. Whether wide open, with a player in his face, or falling out of bounds, Blake Hoffarber single handedly erased 10 points to cut the Gophers within six. Damian Johnson added a wide open from the right wing to cut the game to one. Following several made free throws by seniors Spencer Tollackson and and Dan Coleman, a lay up and a three pointer by Penn State, and one of several nice assists from Nolen to Tollackson, Lawrence McKenzie hit a gutty long three pointer despite an injured hand to give the Gophers a 73-72 lead.Penn State tied the game on a Jamelle Corley free throw, and had several chances to take the lead.
Al Nolen was only eight years old in 1997 when the Gophers beat Illinois to win the Big Ten title in the season that never happened. In a game much like today’s, Illiois star point guard Kiwane Garris had a chance to beat the Gophers with the clock winding down, but Eric Harris flew in from nowhere to steal the ball and secure a win. I don’t know if Nolen was watching the Gophers that day, but in an encyclopedia of Gopher basketball, he should be listed right after Harris.
With six seconds left, the game tied, and Minnesota fans everywhere expecting a spectacularly heartbreaking loss to which we have all grown accustomed, Nolen jumped into the passing lane, stole the ball, drew an intentional foul, and most importantly made 3-4 free throws in the last five seconds of the game to secure an amazing come from behind victory. Every college basketball team could a lot worse than have at least one coach’s son in the back court. Instincts and awareness like Nolen displayed can not be taught.
Hoffarber and Nolen will get the headlines, and they certainly deserve them, but the seniors stepped up too. In addition to his gutty three pointer near the end of the game, Lawrence McKenzie made four other shots, and score 12 points on 5-8 shooting. Spencer Tollackson combined his trademark flailing with nice fall away jump-shots and made all five free throw attempts to finish with a team high 19 points. Dan Coleman’s shot wasn’t there, but he worked hard and got to the free throw line, finishing with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Penn State, on the other hand, game the game away. Despite a huge foul disparity which resulted in every Gopher starter finishing the game with four fouls, Penn State could neither foul out a Gopher or make an important free throw. The Nittany Lions shot 17-36 from the line, and were much worse in the second half. They also had 10 offensive rebounds (compared to the Gopher’s 4) and out rebounded Minnesota by 8, but often could not convert these many extra opportunities into points.
The Gophers needed a win, not only for their NCAA tournament resume, but also for momentum going into home games against Indiana and Michigan State. Thanks to a great team effort from both young and old, the Gophers escaped Happy Valley with both.
Who did what:
- Dan Coleman led the team in rebounds and minutes played. For the first time this season, Coleman stepped up in an important game. His stats might not be impressive, but everything else he did was.
- Damian Johnson didn’t stuff the stat sheet as much as usual, but he did stuff a Penn State three point attempt and added one of his own late in the game.
- Spencer Tollackson made all his free throws. The Gophers will have a hard time winning when Tollackson struggles from the line, but that was not the case today.
- Lawrence McKenzie should hurt his hand every week.
- Lawrence Westbrook played exceptional defense, didn’t turn the ball over and had three assists. His transition from a “look at me” high school scoring sensation to a reliable team player is a testament to Tubby Smith’s coaching.
- Al Nolen was his usual steady self. Despite a season high 5 turnovers, he had six points, seven assists, and three steals. He also reinforced that he is the best clutch free throw shooter that the Gophers have. And he’s a freshman!
- Kevin Payton didn’t do anything to hurt the team.
- Neither did Jonathan Williams.
- Give Blake the ball. Give him the damn ball. He had 19 points on 6-11 shooting, and played the most of any Gopher guard besides Nolen.
- Jamal Abu-Shamala had no stats of consequence in limited action due to an injured hip.
- Does anyone know if Ryan Saunders is still alive?
Highlights from the Big Ten Network (now embedded!)