CHICAGO – Amir Coffey was determined to score coming off a ball screen with the score tied late in overtime Thursday.
It didn’t matter that he had struggled mightily in regulation. It didn’t matter that his driving lane was shrinking. It didn’t matter that the Big Ten defensive player of the year, Penn State guard Josh Reaves, was leaping to block his shot.
He got the acrobatic basket to fall through the hoop while getting knocked to the floor. Ice-cold Coffey turned to boiling-hot Coffey when it mattered most.
The 6-8 junior wouldn’t let a slow start keep him or his teammates from making a statement that they should be NCAA-tournament bound.
Coffey’s 22 points, including 12 points in overtime, likely gave the seventh-seeded Gophers what they needed to secure an NCAA at-large berth after the 77-72 victory against the 10th-seeded Nittany Lions on Thursday night.
“We feel good,” Coffey said. “We really needed this game. There was like an 80 percent chance at first, but now we got a ticket. So we’re excited. We want to win it all.”
Coffey, who had only two points on 1-for-6 shooting in the first half, had 16 points in the last nine minutes of the second half and overtime for the Gophers (20-12), who advance to play No. 2 seed Purdue in the quarterfinals at 6 p.m. Friday.
To open overtime, Coffey hammered a dunk in transition off a steal for the early lead and a jolt his team desperately needed.
The Nittany Lions (14-18) showed why they entered the game with seven victories in their past 10 games by tying it 66-66 with under a minute to play, but Coffey’s three-point play on the layup plus the foul on Reaves was the go-ahead sequence with 54 seconds left.
“He made big plays down the stretch when we needed him to,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “He wasn’t great offensively scoring the ball early, but he did a lot of things that were terrific.”
Senior guard Dupree McBrayer had 18 points on 6-for-11 shooting. Coffey finished 6-for-17 from the field but went 10-for-11 from the foul line. His play in crunch time was almost as impressive as his recent back-to-back 31- and 32-point games vs. Northwestern and Purdue.
Minnesota’s 8-0 run to make it interesting late was fueled by back-to-back baskets from Coffey, highlighted by a two-handed dunk on the break to cut it to 59-57 with just under three minutes left in the second half.
Jordan Murphy, who finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds, powered in a layup with 1:10 remaining in regulation to tie the score at 59. Lamar Stevens (game-high 24 points) and McBrayer traded jumpers to keep the teams deadlocked.
The Gophers got the defensive stop they needed when Stevens tried to go 1-on-1 and missed a jumper with 15 seconds left. That set up a final play after a timeout.
Coffey got the ball off after throwing the inbounds pass, but his 25-foot three-point attempt clanked to end regulation. It was similar to when he had a ball stolen on an isolation play to end the first half. Both errant shots seemed to light a fire in the former Hopkins standout to make up for his poor start.
“I still don’t feel like I got anything going,” he said. “They did a great job on the defensive end. It was tough to score on them. We’re resilient, though. We kept battling until the clock read zero.”
Pitino stated his case going into the postseason as to why he felt his team didn’t need another victory to reach the program’s second NCAA tourney in three seasons. He pointed out that falling to the Nittany Lions wouldn’t be a bad loss, because they were considered a Quadrant 1 opponent.
Instead of worrying about another loss on the résumé, the Gophers picked up their fourth Quad 1 win of the season, which includes victories over Purdue, Wisconsin and Pac-12 champion Washington.
In the end, the Gophers’ narrow victory was reminiscent of the 65-64 win vs. Penn State on Jan. 19 in Minneapolis. Neither team backed down then, or now.
“I felt like we were in, but you know there’s so many variables,” Pitino said. “But at the end of the day, hey, just shut up and go win the game, right? Proud of the guys for doing that. … I definitely think we’re in. So Sunday will be fun, but we’ve got to move on, and we’ve got to try to beat a really good Purdue team.”