The narrative all season, at least during conference play, was that the Gophers were a Jekyll and Hyde. They could play with the best in the conference but also had a frightening tendency to play down to teams they were clearly superior than. Naturally, with the Penn State Nittany Lions coming to town for the season finale with postseason implications hanging in the balance, there was a nervous air surrounding the game, as it was unclear which Minnesota team would actually show up.
Bucking that narrative, however, the Gophers blew out Penn State on Senior Night, sweeping the season series in dominant fashion in an 81-63 win. And in a game that lasted more than two hours thanks to a starring role from the referees, the Gophers wore down the Nittany Lions with a consistent dose of Mo Walker, Austin Hollins, Drizzy Mathieu and Maverick Ahanmisi of all people, in a game that was never really in doubt.
Actually, scratch that. Is there ever a Gopher game that’s completely wrapped up? Minnesota opened up the game early with a 23-3 lead, virtually coasting into halftime with the game all but assured. Penn State had no semblance of an attack and looked out of sorts, blowing nearly all of their timeouts in the first 10 minutes of the game. Yet even as the Gophers pushed their lead to 25 in the second half, Penn State didn’t completely back down. Instead, they used one of Minnesota’s patented droughts to erase the lead and climb to within 9 points. Yet, just when things were looking hairy, Mathieu bailed the team out with a few quick points to stop the bleeding and the Gophers never really looked back.
Given it was Senior Night, Ahanmisi, Austin Hollins, Oto Osenieks and Malik Smith were honored as the team’s seniors. On the court, Ahanmisi actually had his best game of the season, scoring 13 points to match his career high. Was it Senior Night magic? Maybe, though Smith caught none of it as he was held scoreless in what continues to be an ugly, prolonged drought.
Overall, the Gophers did a great job of scoring when they had good looks. Mo Walker was huge in the first half and Penn State had absolutely no answer for him. He carved out plenty of space and basically scored at will, while getting to the line a ton. Minnesota also did an excellent job of capitalizing on turnovers, scoring more than 20 points off of Penn State’s mistakes. And by converting from the free throw line, Minnesota put itself in great position to extend and maintain a huge lead. Defense was an issue at times and has been a huge problem all season, but sometimes it doesn’t matter with a good enough offense.
In terms of the Big Ten Tournament, the Gophers locked up the 7th seed and will face Penn State for the third time this season on Thursday. It’s a good draw for the Gophers, who get to face a team they are head and shoulders above. Again, the Nittany Lions had no answer for Walker, and I anticipate he’ll have another great game in the tournament. And while DJ Newbill and Tim Frazier scored their points, Minnesota was able to minimize the rest of the team.
For the Gophers bubble hopes, the game was a must win. They’re still in a scary bubble situation and have to rely on other teams to improve their standing, but by beating Penn State tonight and hopefully in the first round of the tournament, they’re putting themselves in good position to get in as an at-large.
- With the game being a must win, Richard Pitino elected to not start all of his seniors, which can be a custom. However, with the game all wrapped up in the final minutes, he gave the injured Oto Osenieks a swan song, letting him inbounds the ball in one of the final possessions. As Osenieks is retiring before his senior season, it’s a classy send-off for a guy who’s career was cut short.
- Charles Buggs played some minutes early, but was never really a contributor. After a huge game against Iowa, it’s unclear what his role will be going forward and if he’ll see consistent minutes, though with Osenieks now out for the year it’s curious that he wouldn’t see more time.