Check out my game story here. And notebook here.

In many ways, the Gophers’ game today vs. lowly Penn State was every bit as important as Tuesday’s win over No. 1 Indiana.

One could argue even more important.

For the win over the Hoosiers to mean anything, it has to be a part of something larger – Minnesota picking up the pieces and actually improving. They’ll likely get into the NCAA tournament regardless, but keeping the momentum heading there is another story.

No, Saturday’s matinee wasn’t exactly the most exciting game the Gophers have had all year, but it was critical in several ways:

They showed continuity after an emotional win: The Gophers didn’t come out flat. They didn’t take Penn State for granted. They focused on the fact that they would be veryVERY embarrassed if they had let this one slip. And in a game where both teams were subject to an emotional letdown, that role was all Penn State’s. Coach Tubby Smith had been vocal about his team’s propensity to get too high and too low with the year’s fluctuations – that the Gophers maintained their focus shows a real awareness on their part.

They kept their intensity, even after beating Penn State down quickly: I won’t make too much of this because the Nittany Lions actually played quite poorly. But the Gophers’ defense did have something to do with Penn State’s cold shooting. And after taking a 16-0 lead to start, it would have been easy to relax a little. The Gophers didn’t do that, keeping their own game at a high level throughout, even though they could have easily gotten away with a sloppier performance.

They gave the first hint that they may have actually improved in the turnover realm: Minnesota has held turnovers to ten in each of the last two games – not a easily dismissed statistic for a crew that has struggled with ball handling all year. The Gophers have had consecutive “good” turnover games before – against Wisconsin and Nebraska. Is this destined, like that streak to end or has something finally clicked with this team? Smith says he thinks the flex offense the Gophers are using is helping with that.

Trevor Mbakwe seems to have hit a new stride: Two games, two big performances, and the aggressiveness doesn’t seem to be fading. The sixth-year senior muscled in the paint for 13 points and 13 rebounds for his tenth double-double of the year. Again, yes, it’s Penn State, but considering that Mbakwe hadn’t had consecutive games scoring in double digits since mid January, it’s a good sign.

Shooting is going in an upward direction: After five consecutive games with shooting percentages in the 30s and 20s, the Gophers shots are finally falling. They still have plenty of room to improve from the outside (Minnesota shot just 29 percent from 3-point range, but 50 percent from the field), but the trend is still positive.

Other notes tonight’s 73-44 win:

  • Smith has been dealing with a sore throat for the past couple of days, and had a hoarse voice on Saturday. “I’m just a little bit under the weather today,” he said. “I need to go home and go to bed.”
  • Smith started all four seniors (Mbakwe, Rodney Williams, Andre Ingram and Julian Welch) today to acknowledge senior day and got solid production from each. Welch hit a season highs in both points (10) and assists (7) and Andre Ingram scored more points (4) than he has since the Gophers third game of the Big Ten schedule, against Northwestern.
  • Said Smith on Welch: “It’s always tough when you’re a senior and a junior college transfer and the expectations were to play a lot more. But he showed a lot of character in stepping up today. I’ve got a lot more confidence in him now.”
  • Rodney Williams had a highlight-worthy dunk in the first half, taking a poorly tossed lob from Welch and snagging it with his left hand to throw it in the basket. The amount of time he stayed aloft to do so is just somewhat insane. Watch the replay of his alley-oop here.
  • Smith often doesn’t acknowledge dunks when we ask him about them afterwards, but the coach wouldn’t deny seeing this one. “I think he caught it with his left hand which was amazing, because he was going this way and reaching back,” Smith said, noting Williams was coming from the right, and the pass came to the left of the basket. “But Rodney, he’s spectacular when it comes to that stuff. He just has another gear that most athletes don’t have.”
  • Smith on senior day: “I tell them all the time about the relationships you build with your teammates, it’s not about the bricks and mortar all that, but the things that will sustain you for the rest of your life. I know I still talk to former players. They have a chance to leave a good legacy, 20 wins, they’ve been ranked high before, toughest schedule in the country. We’ll get into the playoffs and we’ll see how it goes.”
  • The student section started chanting “One more year” to Mbakwe in the last minutes of the game. The sixth-year senior laughed afterward. “I don’t know – I guess I’d have to sprain an ankle or something to get another year by the NCAA,” he said.
  • Mbakwe on his final appearance at the Barn: “It’s crazy looking back, thinking I started this at Marquette and I was able to finish off here in my hometown. It’s been special. I think everything happens for a reason. Obviously I had some tough things that happened, but I was able to bounce back and hopefully I’ll be able to finish the season and my career out on a high note.”