MINNEAPOLIS – The pressure on Minnesota will ratchet up in a few days. This afternoon was for reflection – and some fun.
Austin Hollins had 14 points and three steals in his last scheduled home game, a fitting senior spark for the Golden Gophers in an 81-63 victory over Penn State Sunday to set up a rematch between these teams in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
“It’s bittersweet. That’s the best word I can use to describe it,” Hollins said. “It felt great going out there and getting a win, seeing the guys that I came in with go out having a good game … but it’ll be sad I’m leaving and not being able to play in ‘The Barn’ again.”
DeAndre Mathieu led the Gophers (19-12, 8-10) with 16 points and six assists, Mo Walker scored 16 points on a career-best 8-for-10 free-throw shooting performance, and Minnesota locked up seventh place in coach Richard Pitino’s first season.
“It was good to get one at home, the last one at home for the seniors,” Walker said. “We all played hard. We knew what we were playing for. So good to get it.”
D.J. Newbill had 15 of his 24 points in the second half for the Nittany Lions (15-16, 6-12), who tied for 10th in the conference standings with Northwestern and drew the higher seed because they beat the Wildcats earlier this week.
Minnesota and Penn State will play Thursday in Indianapolis, with the winner advancing to the quarterfinals to face Wisconsin.
“One of the hardest things to do in sports is beat a team three times, so we’ve got to understand that,” Pitino said.
The Gophers also beat the Nittany Lions in Pennsylvania Jan. 8.
“We’ll worry about Minnesota on Wednesday,” coach Patrick Chambers said. “We’ve just got to pick up the pieces, regain our confidence.”
The Gophers badly needed to win this to keep their NCAA tournament bid viable, and even another victory over the Nittany Lions four days later might not be enough to get in. Seven losses in the 10-game stretch prior to this, including defeats to the Big Ten’s last two finishers, Northwestern and Purdue, and a 2-7 conference road record hurt.
But whatever happens next weekend when the brackets are filled out, the Gophers finished on a high note in honor of Hollins and the three other players who won’t return next season.
Hollins had 57 points over his last three games, the most in such a stretch of his career. He scored first on a short flip shot from the lane, and the Gophers surged to a 23-3 advantage that looked like it belonged on the football scoreboard across the street. That was their biggest lead of the entire Big Ten season.
Fellow senior Maverick Ahanmisi, whose playing time dwindled with the arrival of three newcomers in the backcourt that Pitino brought in, matched his career high with 13 points. He went 3-for-6 from three-point range.
Ahanmisi played only 47 minutes total over the first 17 conference games and scored just two points. But he said afterward all that mattered to him was winning, while acknowledging he held back tears.
“I’ve got a lot of regrets this year with decisions I’ve made – I think that happens – but I need to find him more minutes somehow someway,” Pitino said, “and hopefully we’ll be playing a little bit longer.”
Even Oto Osenieks, who will skip his last season because of a persistent knee injury, joined the celebration by throwing an inbound pass and promptly returning to the bench in the final minute with a wave to the crowd.
The other senior, Malik Smith, went scoreless. In his last six games, he totaled eight points on 1-for-23 shooting, including a 1-for-20 mark from three-point range.
The Gophers led by as much as 51-26 in the second half, until Newbill helped bring the Lions back to within 55-46 before the Gophers pulled away again. They had their fast break in full gear most of the game, thanks to 21 defensive rebounds and 10 steals that propelled it.
Tim Frazier added 14 points, going 10 for 12 from the foul line, for the Lions.
They’ve had some triumphs this season, with two wins over Ohio State and a victory at Indiana in one of the Big Ten’s most daunting arenas for visiting teams, but they’re still they’re still 12-42 in Big Ten play since Chambers was hired.
“We fought our way back to single digits, but I think we ran out of gas,” Chambers said. “In this league you just can’t do it.”