The Gophers stormed back from a 10 point deficit with less than 10 minutes to play Thursday night in Happy Valley and took a late lead before fumbling away two critical possessions and watching Talor Battle hit a clutch three to give the Nittany Lions a 66-63 win.
Minnesota lost this game for two reasons. First, Battle played very well. He finished with 28 points and was 7-14 from three. Second, Minnesota's composure down the stretch was cringe-worthy. Blake Hoffarber forced a fade-away three. Austin Hollins traveled. And Hoffarber and Ralph Sampson III clearly weren't on the same page as Hoffarber threw a pass that missed Sampson and sailed out of bounds. Had any of those final possessions ended differently, the Gophers just might have secured their second straight road win.
But as it is, the Gophers fall to 6-8 in conference play and have dropped 5 of their last 6 games. That's good for a tie for 7th place with games remaining at home against MIchigan State, Michigan and Penn State and a road test at Northwestern. The Gophers might need to win 3 of those 4 games to find themselves in the NCAA Tournament.
Aside from he late-game mishaps, the Gophers can find other reasons to look inward. They committed 13 turnovers. Sampson alone had 5. Despite getting Penn State in early foul trouble in the first half with PSU's bigs on the bench and the Gophers in the bonus for nearly half of the first stanza, the Gophers didn't get to the foul line. On the night, the Gophers were just 6-10 from the line. With their size, the Gophers need to be getting to the line far more often.
Defensively, Minnesota went almost exclusively to the 2-3 zone they used against cold-shooting Iowa. There were stretches when the zone forced PSU into ill-advised or long threes. But there were also stretches when the Gophers were giving up very open looks. For a handful of possessions, the Gophers switched to a 3-2 zone to take away the three point shot. It was the transition defense that let the Gophers down when Battle hit his critical late-game three. As Penn State pushed the ball up the court after a turnover, two defenders swarmed the ball in the corner and no one noticed Battle spotting up on wing.
While the loss digs Minnesota an even deeper hole, and it's tough to be optimistic after losing 5 of 6, the loss at Penn State isn't completely devastating. The Nittany Lions have played well on their home court. And despite was the ESPN's horrible play by play man Bob Wischusen told you 95 times, this wasn't a play-in game for the NCAA's. Today, the Gophers are likely still in. But they need to start winning.
Some thoughts on individual player performances after the jump.
- Maverick Ahanmisi played 8 minutes. For my money, the Gophers were better yesterday as a team when he was on the floor. His ball handling freed up Hoffarber for outside shots. Ahanmisi was a +2 for the game and had an otherwise blank time sheet. He didn't score. And he didn't turn the ball over. I'll take the lack of turnovers to put Hoffarber at the two-guard spot.
- Sampson had one of those games he has that gives ammunition to his detractors. Seven point, four rebounds, 5 turnovers and two ugly offensive fouls in the waning minutes. One of his turnovers was hard to fathom it even happened. With a one-point lead, Minnesota deflected a long shot and the ball caromed to Sampson. He decided not to grab the ball and instead sent a strange push-pass to Tim Frazier of Penn State. With 2 seconds on the shot clock, Frazier buried a 3. This was a definite rough game for Sampson
- Colton Iverson meanwhile had one of those games he has on occasion that makes you wonder why he can't do that consistently. He had 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 6 points. He drew at least 7 fouls on Penn State. His passing to Trevor Mbakwe in the high-low sets was very good. Seven assists for Colton. Amazing.
- Mbakwe was Mbakwe. He had a double-double at half-time with 10 and 10 and finished with 16 and 12. I'd still like to see the Gophers force him the ball on offense more often.
- Rodney Williams found himself in foul trouble in both havles, but found some momentum during Minnesota's second half spurt. He even hit a clutch three.
- Hoffarber finished with a team-high 18 points. He was 6-13 from three. He added 7 assists and 2 turnovers in 38 minutes.
- Sparty is next. Total must-win?