Gophers coach Richard Pitino didn't have many answers for why his team suffered a disappointing 52-50 loss at Penn State.
After making an opening statement, Pitino waited about 10 seconds for questions (I didn't make the trip to State College). Reporters didn't speak up fast enough, so they lost out on the opportunity to talk to him.
“Thank you,” Pitino said before walking out.
This second straight loss Saturday to a team that the Gophers led by 14 points in the first half needed a lot more explanation. Pitino won’t address the local media until Friday since Minnesota’s next game is Saturday against Wisconsin at home.
A week is a long time to sit on such a demoralizing defeat. Falling to Penn State seemed much more devastating than the 18-point loss Wednesday at Michigan State, because the Gophers had so many opportunities to win Saturday. Some of the same issues that plagued them against the Spartans showed up again.
Poor shooting. Turnovers. Being outrebounded.
Minnesota’s defense was good enough to win, holding Penn State to 30.4 percent shooting (17-for-56) shooting for the game. Problem is the Gophers shot even worse than the Nittany Lions in the second half at 28 percent (7-for-28) with 11 of their 20 turnovers. In the end, though, Pitino’s team just simply got outplayed down the stretch in almost every way.
Penn State missed five straight shots after Josh Reaves’ errant dunk led to Minnesota taking a 48-45 with 2:21 left. The Gophers had been there before pulling out wins at Purdue and Northwestern late, but they didn't play with the same poise on both ends.
A three-pointer from Payton Banks on a bad close out by Nate Mason led to tied game at 48-48.
Mason responded with a pull-up jumper off a Lynch screen for a two-point lead. But the Gophers again had a defensive breakdown when Amir Coffey allowed easy penetration down the middle. The shot was missed, but Jordan Murphy failed to box out Mike Watkins leading to a fouled putback. Watkins made two free throws to tie it again 50-50.
Coffey tried to give his team the lead on an ensuing drive, but he missed the layup with a minute remaining. The Nittany Lions were there to force a jump ball on the defensive rebound by Banks. Another play in their favor.
Minnesota played solid defense to make Banks take a deep three-pointer with 34 seconds left, but Banks grabbed the long offensive rebound – the most critical of Penn State’s 14 offensive rebounds in the game.
The Gophers made another strong defensive stand, which included a block by Eric Curry on Tony Carr’s layup attempt. That left 6.1 seconds for an inbounds pass to score the game-winner. It almost seemed like the game was destined to go into overtime for the third time this year.
But Mason fouled Carr on the inbounds pass (probably should’ve given him a little bit more space). Carr drilled his first points of the game for the 52-50 lead.
It wasn’t over. Mason raced up the court with 5.2 seconds and probably gave up on the play too soon when he heaved a desperation three-pointer with 1.7 seconds left. Akeem Springs was there for the follow but it bounced off the rim. The Gophers didn’t deserve to win as Pitino later stated, but they certainly had their chances.
How could nearly every play not go the Gophers way in the clutch? Part of it is bad luck. Part of it was also not being in the right mindset. Pitino will have to settle his team’s emotions this week and figure out how to get his players executing better offensively and being more focused down the stretch.
It’s still a long, long season to go with many more close games and down-to-the-wire finishes to come.
“They’re a young team,” Pitino said of the Nittany Lions before his news conference ended. “They found a way to win. We knew it would be difficult. That will be a tough pill to swallow. We’ll have to get over it and get back to work.”
LYNCH RESPONDS: Reggie Lynch wasn’t a factor in Wednesday’s loss to the Spartans before fouling out for the fourth time in five games. But the 6-foot-10 junior center was the lone bright spot offensively for the Gophers on Saturday. He responded from a two-point performance Wednesday to score 12 points on 5-for-9 shooting with six rebounds and two blocks in a season-high 32 minutes against Penn State.
COFFEY BANGED UP: Coffey has shown his toughness all season even with a slight frame. The 6-8, 195-pound Hopkins native bounced back from a lot of hard fouls and falls. But Coffey slammed his right arm into the floor after landing awkwardly when Reaves grabbed his arm on a transition dunk attempt with two minutes left. The officials called a flagrant 2, but it probably should’ve resulted in an ejection.
Coffey, who finished with six points, seven rebounds and four turnovers, shook it off and hit both free throws, but you can bet his body is feeling the pain now once the adrenaline rush wore off. Fortunately he has a week to rest before the rival Badgers arrive in Minneapolis for the biggest game of the season so far.