Penn State seemed to be the only Big Ten opponent the Gophers men’s basketball team could say it owned in recent years.
Four straight wins doesn’t seem like much but that spanned three seasons. It had been five years since Minnesota lost at home in the series.
These weren’t the same Nittany Lions, though. They had just earned a national ranking for the first time in 23 years. They were actually in most NCAA tournament projections, unlike Minnesota.
Still, the Gophers kept their winning streak alive against Penn State behind 53 combined points from Marcus Carr and Daniel Oturu in a 75-69 victory Wednesday night in front of 9,714 at Williams Arena.
The Gophers (10-7, 4-3 in the Big Ten) weren’t playing early like their NCAA tournament hopes were on the line, especially defensively. They finished with the type of toughness their coach demands.
“We had to scrap,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said after the game. “You can’t play [soft] against a tough and well-coached team like that. Four deflections at halftime was horrible. We brought more resistance. We just played tough and got stops.”
Oturu, who finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds, ran up the court shouting and throwing his hands up in the air to pump up the Barn crowd in the final minute.
The 6-foot-10 sophomore center had just finished celebrating a play from Carr, who snatched away a loose ball on defense and raced down to finish a layup strong after being fouled.
Minnesota’s dynamic inside-outside tandem was too much in the end for the Nittany Lions (12-5, 2-4), who were outscored 24-11 in the last 15 minutes.
“Oturu and Marcus played great,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers said. “They’re 1-2 on everyone’s scouting report — and they still find ways to score and they play almost 40 minutes.”
The previous highest scoring game together was 56 points, but that came in a double-overtime loss at Purdue when they ran out of gas playing heavy minutes.
That wouldn’t happen this time since they made sure it was decided in regulation.
Carr’s floater with just under seven minutes left in the second half capped a 13-1 run. And it was fitting that Oturu would follow soon after with a three-pointer to help avoid a letdown after Sunday’s upset win over No. 19 Michigan. Oturu, who was named Big Ten player of the week for the second time Monday, has a combined 56 points in his last two games, which included a career-best 30-point performance coming back from injuring his shoulder against the Wolverines.
Coming off back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Rutgers, the Nittany Lions brought confidence on the road by shooting 60 percent from the field in the first half.
A two-point Penn State halftime advantage turned into a 56-48 lead after a jumper from Lamar Stevens early in the second half.
A few minutes later, Oturu and Penn State’s Mike Watkins had to be separated before picking up off-setting technical fouls after a verbal exchange between them. That sequence fired up the Gophers to rally from behind. They held Penn State to 24 percent shooting in the second half.
“That was a huge focus at halftime,” Carr said. “It wasn’t just bad defense. It was unacceptable.”
Entering Wednesday’s game, the Gophers (No. 40) were among 12 Big Ten teams ranked in the top 40 in the NET rankings, which help determine NCAA tournament selection. They also had an offensive efficiency rated No. 19 in the country, which was the highest during Pitino’s tenure.
That made taking care of business against the Nittany Lions at home that much more critical to build momentum going into a tougher stretch in the Big Ten schedule, including road games at Rutgers on Sunday and Ohio State next Thursday.
“You have to win at home in this league,” Pitino said. “With our schedule it’s such a challenge. You got to find a way to rack up as many [quality win] opportunities as you can.”