At halftime of Sunday’s regular-season finale, the Gophers were leading by 14, having scored 38 points.
Down in the locker room, Richard Pitino scolded his players. They could be more aggressive, he believed.
The coach was eyeing 80.
Sunday, during an eventual 81-63 slamming of Penn State, it was Pitino’s way of motivating his team to preserve the early momentum and finish strong.
It worked. The Gophers blitzed Penn State with a balanced attack from six scorers, all of whom finished with at least nine points. They overcame a second-half lull and powered to a strong finish behind 56 percent shooting from the floor.
Normally, Pitino loves to credit his defense for victories and fault it for defeats, and the Gophers have repeated that mantra all season: They rise on fall on their defense.
“When we’re playing well defensively, we’re playing well offensively too,” Andre Hollins said. “So we’re not going to try to outscore people, we’re just going to defend and stop them.”
But perhaps the former should be the Gophers’ foremost goal.
While the Gophers have enjoyed a handful of solid defensive games this season, over the course of the Big Ten schedule, it really has been the offense that has made the biggest difference.
The Gophers have shot 51.3 percent from the floor in their 18 victories. They have managed only 42.1 percent shooting in their losses.
The defense has seen a gap as well, but not nearly as large as the 9-plus percentage points the offense has. In victories, the Gophers have held opponents to 40.1 percent shooting. In defeats, it’s 45.4 percent.
Part of the problem has been that the Gophers defense never has been consistent enough to rely on. They closed the regular season in the Big Ten basement in defensive efficiency (essentially how many points opponents score per possession), according to the website of college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy. The Gophers have given up at least 1.10 points per possession nine times in 18 games — a mixed bag of wins and losses — and has given up at least 1.20 three times, two of those victories.
“I think at this point, we are growing,” Austin Hollins said. “We’ve grown a lot over the course of the season and I think we’re improving in all areas but there’s still room to improve, there’s definitely room to improve.”
On the other end, though, the Gophers have shown promise. They rank third in the conference in offensive efficiency (weighted points per possession) and second in two-point shooting percentage.
Sunday, they were able to put points up in a variety of ways, nailing seven of 20 three-pointers and scoring 26 points in the paint.
“When we don’t turn it over and we execute our offense I think we’re pretty hard to guard,” Pitino said.
• Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu each received honorable mentions on the All-Big Ten teams.
Hollins was recognized by both the coaches and the media, while Mathieu was given the nod by the media.
Although Hollins has been struggling through an ankle injury suffered in January, he remains the team’s leading scorer, ranking 12th in the Big Ten at 14.6 points per game.
Mathieu, who transferred from Central Arizona College before the season, lands at fourth in the Big Ten in assists with 4.4 per game. He is the Gophers’ second-leading scorer, averaging 11.9 points.