– Those two inspiring yet agonizing words never were spoken pregame, even if they bounced through every player’s brain.

NCAA tournament.

The Gophers knew they’d need a victory to keep their tournament hopes alive. It was a game they’d been playing in their heads for weeks, but one never more cut-and-dried than in the first round of the Big Ten tournament Thursday night, when a loss would have sent them home to wait.

“We didn’t really talk about it, but we definitely knew,” point guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “If we didn’t win this one, there was no chance of us getting to the NCAA tournament. We all watch ESPN, we watch the bottom line with the bracketology.”

The Gophers’ tournament résumé slightly improved with a 63-56 victory over 10th-seeded Penn State after allowing the Nittany Lions to charge back.

Andre Hollins finally stopped that charge by nailing a three-pointer with 15 seconds left to send the Gophers up 62-56 and all but cinch the victory.

“When he hit the shot, in my mind, that sealed the deal,” center Mo Walker said. “It takes a lot of guts to take a shot like that, but he made it.”

Penn State (15-17) shot only 32.2 percent from the field, and Minnesota (20-12) turned the ball over only nine times on the other end. Austin Hollins was once again a major factor, finishing with a game-high 18 points and adding two assists and two steals. In the past four games, the senior guard has compiled 75 points, rebounding from a sluggish start in Big Ten play.

The Gophers will play No. 2-seeded Wisconsin in the second round Friday. Minnesota split the two-game season series with its border rival, with each team winning its home game.

Andre Hollins said that second-round matchup added an extra layer to the first game: Beat Penn State and the Gophers would get another shot at the Badgers, ranked No. 12 in the country, and an opportunity for another quality victory to impress the NCAA selection committee.

For most of the game, Minnesota beat up on Penn State, despite the Gophers’ sloppy stretches and allowing their opponent to pull down 15 offensive rebounds. But the Nittany Lions plowed back from multiple double-digit deficits.

A 13-point Gophers lead at 51-38 with a little more than seven minutes on the clock disintegrated when John Johnson sank a three-pointer and then sandwiched a layup-and-one combination from D.J. Newbill with another three ball. The sequence instigated a 20-3 run to bring Penn State within 58-54 with 2:35 left.

“They made three three-point plays in a row,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “That segment got to us a bit.”

The Nittany Lions pulled within three at 59-56 with 45 seconds remaining after Brandon Taylor knocked down a pair of free throws

Minnesota missed half of its final 14 free throws, but Hollins’ shot made good on the Gophers’ early dominance.

Going into the game, most bracketology analysts were in consensus that Minnesota was out of the current field. Thursday’s victory, combined with some convenient losses by other bubble teams — Arkansas, California and Utah — gives the Gophers an opportunity to slip back in. Still, many analysts believe Minnesota needs a victory vs. the Badgers to stay there.

“We’re trying to do something in Minnesota that’s never been done before, and that’s win a Big Ten championship,” Austin Hollins said. “We have one goal right now … if we do that, we won’t have to worry about anyone making a decision for us.”