Are we officially in free-fall mode yet? The Gophers went into Happy Valley in a huge conference matchup to take on Penn State and try to help lock down a win to bolster their NCAA Tournament chances. Instead, Minnesota dropped yet another winnable game against a beatable team, coughing up a late three-point lead in a 66-63 loss en route to their fifth loss in six games. The Gophers now sit at 17-9 for the season with a 6-8 record in the Big Ten. Once again, Minnesota finds itself in nearly “must-win” mode with four games left to play.
One thing that could be said about the Gophers this year is that they haven’t really lost badly to anyone. They are generally competitive in each game they’ve been a part of. Instead, they often find themselves losing by way of not executing. There is the feeling of the game being completely within reach, yet the team just can’t take advantage of the opportunity to take home the victory. This has manifested itself much more often in the latter part of the season than earlier, specifically in games against Indiana, Illinois and last night against Penn State. The teams were basically trying to hand the game over to the Gophers, who didn’t seem interested in taking control.
Once again, Minnesota didn’t play poorly last night. They shot a hefty 47% from the field, committed a “meh” 13 turnovers and, for the most part, stayed out of foul trouble. They even had themselves in position to win in the final two minutes, owning a three-point lead, before squandering it with a traveling violation, an ill-timed three-point attempt and a throwaway out of bounds. Seriously, all that in the final two minutes?
Minnesota even came all the way back from a 10-point deficit to take the lead and had Penn State on the ropes after a thunderous dunk from Colton Iverson at the height of the comeback. Penn State had basically given them the game at the point, Minnesota just needed to take it. But, like Illinois and Indiana before them, it seemed like the Gophers simply didn’t want it.
The Nittany Lions played well to boot, and the story of the game was Talor Battle, who scored 28 points to lead all scorers and hit a decisive three-pointer to take back the final lead for Penn State with1:15 to go.
Okay, rant time:
I understand the premise of Tubby’s 2-3 zone is to use our size to take away any semblance of an inside game and force teams into a lot of three-point shots, and that happened again last night. However, when an all-conference player like Battle is having the kind of night he’s having, YOU DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO STOP HIM. Double-team him if you have to; run a box-and-one on him. Make someone else on the team beat you, which, in all seriousness, wasn’t going to be happen. David Jackson, Jeff Brooks and Tim Frazier are not going to beat you. I don’t know how many times Battle had an open three-point attempt, but it was a handful. Jeff Brooks can have the freaking open three-pointers, but not Talor Battle. That’s what sunk the Gophers in the end.
Was it a secret that the entire offense was going to flow through Battle? NO. What in the name of Dusty Rychart is Blake Hoffarber doing collapsing on a penetration on the deciding PSU possession, leaving Battle wide open from the wing? Was that a joke? Who do you think is going to get the ball in the final minute? Get real, guys. The final five minutes I kept saying out loud, “don’t lose track of Battle, don’t lost track of Battle.” If I, a rube on the couch, is saying that, then I should hope the rest of the team is as well.
But it didn’t happen. Battle torched the Gophers. And it wasn’t any sort of secret that he was going to try. Minnesota knew exactly what it had to to stop Penn State and couldn’t execute. They continually lost track of him, which is just dumbfounding to me.
Okay, rant over.
The Gophers received good performances from a number of guys including Trevor Mbakwe, Blake Hoffarber and (gasp!) Colton Iverson, who actually toyed with a triple-double, dishing out seven assists to go along with his six points and nine boards. Mbakwe had 16 and 12, and had the high-low working with Ralph Sampson and Iverson all night. Strangely, though, the defense was the undoing. Penn State was forced into only five turnovers, and the Gophers failed to record a single steal. If you can’t force turnovers on the road, it’s usually not pretty.
As it stands now, the Gophers are basically three wins away from securing an NCAA Tournament berth with no questions asked. Two wins puts them in the “maybe” zone, which we’re all familiar with, of course. Can they get those two wins? It’s really hard to be confident at this point. The good news is that three of the final four games are at Williams Arena for Minnesota. The bad news is that they sincerely look to be at the bottom of the second tier of Big Ten teams. This is a different team than we saw a month ago, and I’m far from convinced that they are deserving, or even capable of securing a Tournament invite.