How the Gophers remained in the mix for the NCAA tournament after a 27-point loss Wednesday at Illinois said a lot about what they accomplished before that debacle.
After that one nasty defeat, coach Richard Pitino and his players found themselves with heavy doubters. The road doesn’t get any easier from here, but Saturday, they were able to silence their critics for one night.
For the second game in a row, the Gophers faced a winless Big Ten team, but Dupree McBrayer’s free throw with 2.7 seconds left helped them escape with a 65-64 victory over Penn State in front of an announced 11,042 at Williams Arena.
“At the end of the day, we had to look at ourselves in the mirror,” Pitino said. “The way that you lose and you don’t compete — that’s a problem. Even today, we weren’t an offensive masterpiece by any means, but we fought. We got tougher as the game went on.”
McBrayer was fouled hard driving into the lane with the seconds winding down. After missing the first free throw, the senior co-captain calmly drilled the second for the decisive point.
Penn State’s Lamar Stevens, who scored a game-high 27 points, found himself open for a winning jumper from about 15 feet out, but it fell errant at the buzzer.
“Relieving,” said Jordan Murphy about how he felt about McBrayer’s free throw.
Murphy’s emphatic dunk off his own miss with 59.1 seconds left seemingly was an exclamation point on a much-needed victory. His night — 19 points, 21 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks — set the tone for the Gophers (14-4, 4-3 Big Ten) after halftime.
“Coach just told me to keep my mind on rebounding, because I was too much in my head in the first half,” said Murphy, who had four points and four rebounds at halftime.
However, Murphy did commit a costly foul on the next possession, as Stevens converted a three-point play to tie it 64-64. The Gophers called timeout, setting up McBrayer for their final possession, and held on at the end, days after suffering arguably their worst loss under Pitino.
Early on in the game, the Gophers didn’t look motivated to prove the Illini blowout was a fluke. The Nittany Lions (7-12, 0-8) took a 20-10 lead after a three from Stevens, who scored 17 points in the first half, and led 38-30 at halftime.
Stevens opened the second half with a three-point play to extend Penn State’s lead to 11, but Murphy finally responded to a power forward duel he was losing mightily for the first 25 minutes.
Daniel Oturu and Eric Curry, who combined for 21 points, also went to work inside to turn the tide. The trio scored 20 of Minnesota’s first 22 points in the second half, including 12 points from Murphy, who got his team its first lead at 52-51 on two free throws with 8:41 to play.
Amir Coffey’s two free throws capped a 21-6 run for a 61-54 Gophers lead, but Penn State scored the next seven points to set up the final stretch.
Wednesday was by far the worst of the Gophers, but they were at their best winning at Wisconsin earlier this month. Those Badgers showed Saturday how tough they can be in Madison by upsetting No. 2 Michigan, which plays host to Minnesota on Tuesday.
“We were playing just to be perfect,” Murphy said. “[Pitino] told us not everything is going to be perfect and to forget that last game. We’re going to have to win ugly.”