INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Minnesota coach Richard Pitino thinks 20 wins should be good enough to make the NCAA tournament.
Twenty-one or 22 would make the argument against his team a whole lot toughr. Twenty-three would nullify the discussion.
The Golden Gophers took one big step toward that goal Thursday, getting 18 points from Austin Hollins and a late 3-pointer from Andre Hollins to seal a 63-56 win over pesky Penn State at the Big Ten tournament.
“This game had a lot of implications and it’s hard not to ignore it, but you know it’s there,” Hollins said when asked about the NCAA talk. “It’s a game we had to win. We came out and took care of business.”
The question, of course, is whether the Golden Gophers (20-12) have done enough to get one of those precious 36 at-large bids?
A year ago, 20 wins put Minnesota in a first-round NCAA game against UCLA. In 2008, all 20 wins got the Gophers was a trip to the NIT – and a first-round exit.
There is plenty to scrutinize on the resume.
While Minnesota won all three games against Penn State, the No. 10 seed, it went just 5-10 against the rest of the league. Four of their conference losses came against ranked teams and the Gophers beat two Top 25 foes – though both came at home. The nonconference schedule include wins over tourney-bound Coastal Carolina and Wofford, both automatic qualifiers as league champions, the rest of it didn’t look too imposing.
So the Gophers have some unfinished business in Indy.
A win over No. 12 Wisconsin in Friday’s quarterfinals would help. The border rivals split their season series with the home team winning each game.
Two more wins would send Minnesota into Sunday’s Big Ten title game almost assured of an NCAA bid. Three more wins would take the matter completely out of the committee’s hands, making Minnesota the Big Ten’s automatic qualifier as the tourney champ.
“Our focus right now is the Big Ten tournament and we want to win four in a row right now,” Austin Hollins said.
Only one Big Ten team has achieved that feat since the tourney began in 1998 – sixth-seeded Iowa won four times in four days to take the 2001 tourney title.
But seventh-seeded Minnesota, which has won three of four, needs to play a lot better than they did Thursday to match the Hawkeyes
At one point early in the second half, the Gophers were 11 of 30 from the field. They nearly blew a 13-point lead in the final seven minutes, and when they had multiple chances to seal the win from the free-throw line, they couldn’t do that, either. Instead, Minnesota missed four straight shots before Penn State bailed it out with a lane violation on the last miss. Andre Hollins took advantage of the miscue by making the third shot for a 59-54 lead. He eventually sealed it with the 3 from the left corner with 11.7 seconds left.
For the Nittany Lions, it was yet another lesson in frustration.
“This has been the year of close. I’m really tired of getting close,” coach Patrick Chambers said after watching his team get within 58-54 with 2:35 to go. “We really have to get over the hump and start winning these games.”
D.J Newbill scored 16 points for Penn State (15-17), which has three losses in four games including twice this week to the Gophers. Senior Tim Frazier had 11 points, five rebounds and five assists, though it may not be his final game with Penn State.
Because the Nittany Lions are ineligible for the NIT with a losing record, Chambers said he was open to playing in one of the smaller tournaments.
“I’ll talk to the team and if they want to keep playing, I would love to keep coaching and they’ve still got to ask us,” he said.
If this was the end, at least Penn State went down with a fight.
Minnesota quickly seized control, jumping to a 9-0 lead, then scoring the first seven points of the second half to make it 37-25.
It looked like the Gophers would cruise after making it 51-38 with 7:10 to play. But the Nittany Lions finally roared back late, getting within 58-54 on two free throws from Brandon Taylor. Then Andre Hollins closed it out with the last of his nine points.
All the Gophers can do now is play it out.
“I thought it we won tonight and things went our way, we could be in,” Pitino said. “You get to 20 wins, you get a top-five strength of schedule, usually you get rewarded when you play a great schedule. That’s normally what happens. But with that being said, we came in here to win a Big Ten championship, that’s been our goal.”