On the last day of the Gophers men’s basketball team’s tormented regular season, Williams Arena’s inhabitants cheered the long careers of its troupe of veterans.
But what started off as a senior day celebration bled into a languid performance and disastrous finish for the home team Sunday. D.J. Newbill drilled an NBA-distance three-pointer at the final buzzer, sliding Penn State past the Gophers 79-76.
“Definitely didn’t imagine my last home game like that,” Gophers guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “I thought we’d come out, show up and handle our business. And we didn’t handle our business today.”
The loss meant the Gophers (17-14, 6-12 Big Ten) will play Wednesday in Chicago, in what’s essentially a play-in game to the Big Ten tournament for the bottom four seeds. The 11th-seeded Gophers will face last-place Rutgers, which has lost 14 games in a row.
Perennial punching bag Penn State (16-15, 4-14) controlled most of the game. Gophers coach Richard Pitino tossed his coat in the first half, lost his tie before the end of halftime and was stomping wildly and throwing water bottles at the bench in the second.
Leading only 75-74 with 50 seconds to go after Mo Walker — who otherwise had a career day — missed the second of two free throws, Newbill (31 points, five rebounds, four assists) rattled in a 10-foot runner with 22 seconds remaining. On the following possession, Gophers forward Joey King was fouled in the left corner, but his right foot was on the arc, so he went to the line for two free throws instead of three.
Again, the crowd slumped as King — an 82 percent free-throw shooter this season — missed the first before making the second, setting up Newbill’s finale.
Pitino called it “a little bit fitting” that the Gophers, who lost eight games by six points or fewer this season, would again tumble via Newbill’s “heave, probably a 25-foot, challenged shot.” Freshman Nate Mason clung to the Big Ten scoring leader like cellophane, but the senior’s shot sank anyway.
“It hasn’t quite gone our way this year,” Pitino said. “I’m not saying we’re unlucky, but I don’t know if we’ve been lucky.”
The Gophers honored the five seniors — centers Elliott Eliason and Walker, guards Andre Hollins and Mathieu and walk-on Kendall Shell — on the court before the game, and Pitino started all his seniors except for usual starter Walker. But any energy from the ceremony quickly died when the Gophers fell behind early.
With the Barn a little subdued and the Gophers sleepwalking, Pitino pointed to the Daylight Savings Time change, suggesting that both teams and the crowd were a bit groggy with the hour lost.
Penn State shot 10-for-24 from three-point range, with Newbill making five. Hollins, after scoring 13 in the first half and totaling 11 points in one early three-minute span, went 0-for-5 from the field without a point in the second. But Walker led the Gophers with a career-high 26 points and 11 rebounds, his third double-double. King tied his Gophers high with 19 points and added four assists.
After trailing by as many as 13 early in the second half, the Gophers had pulled back within one on Charles Buggs’ three-pointer, and less than a minute later took the 66-65 lead when Walker, left wide open, dunked with 6:19 to go. The Nittany Lions went up by four again, but the Gophers kept going to Walker, who gave his team a 74-72 lead with 1:45 to go.
“I was trying to motivate the guys,” Walker said of his upbeat, animated presence late. “I was trying to pick everybody up. I was just trying to fight. I was trying to win the game. Senior night, I wanted to go out on a bang and kind of went out on a bang on the wrong way.”