STATE COLLEGE, PA. – Just when it looked as if the Gophers wouldn’t be able to overcome the plethora of mistakes that had buried them Wednesday night, two of the scapegoats came through.
With 1 minute, 49 seconds on the clock and the Gophers trailing by one point — having returned from an eight-point deficit — Austin Hollins got a piece of the basketball, turning over Geno Thorpe and taking it to the other end for a layup attempt, which DeAndre Mathieu tipped in. Just over a minute later, when Minnesota was clinging to a one-point lead, Mathieu swiped the ball from John Johnson at half-court, giving the Gophers a three-point lead they’d be able to keep.
Lucky for the Gophers (13-3, 2-1 Big Ten), who played from behind for most of the game, and who follow the 68-65 victory at Bryce Jordan Center with an incredibly tough four-game stretch: at Michigan State, against Ohio State, at Iowa and against Wisconsin.
“Coach [Richard Pitino] got into me at halftime,” Mathieu said. “I wasn’t playing hard enough, my body language was not what he was wanting it to be, so I had to change my attitude, come back and play harder in the second half.”
But it was partly those two guards that nearly cost the Gophers. Both Austin Hollins — who struggled through the entire game, finishing with four points and four rebounds — and Mathieu, who finished with 16 points and four rebounds after a big second half, were essentially absent in a first half that felt like a roller coaster.
After displaying exceptional defense in holding Penn State (9-7, 0-3) scoreless for nearly seven minutes to start the game, the Gophers fell apart. The Nittany Lions took advantage of a barrage of Gophers turnovers and worked a 14-4 run through Tim Frazier (20 points, five rebounds, eight assists) and strong inside play by Chaska native Ross Travis (18 points, 13 rebounds). As its margin shrank, Minnesota — which was excelling early by getting the ball into Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason, who had his fifth double-double of the year with 11 points and 12 rebounds — began to panic. Mathieu looked frustrated on the court. Austin Hollins couldn’t get involved. And without two of their leaders playing well, the Gophers simply looked sloppy, turning over the ball 14 times.
“Nothing was going right for us, especially offensively,” Pitino said, before quickly adding that the most important thing was ultimately pulling out the victory. “We were making losing plays, like not blocking out, turning the ball over, doing a lot of silly things.”
The Gophers trailed 35-30 at halftime but were able to tie the score with just over six minutes left on a pair of big plays by Mathieu, who hit a short jumper and then sank two free throws after getting fouled on the next possession. After Frazier fouled out with 2:08 remaining, Malik Smith hit four free throws in the last 23 seconds to keep the Gophers on top, and each of Penn State’s final two three-point attempts — the last at the buzzer — fell short.
With the victory, the Gophers have a winning record in the league, but face some critical concerns going forward, the most pressing of which might be their seeming inability to hold a lead.
“We have three really tough games coming up,” Eliason said. “That’s a huge stretch for us, so we’ve really got to iron some things out here. … We need to turn around and fix some of our mistakes.”