The heat is officially on for the Minnesota men’s basketball team.
After an impressive all-around thumping of Iowa last week appeared to put the Gophers back on track, Minnesota went to Penn State only to have many of its problems resurface in a 66-63 loss at the Bryce Jordan Center.
The Gophers (17-9, 6-8 Big Ten) have now lost five of their last six games and are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament, something that seemed inconceivable just weeks ago.
Despite trailing by 10 with less than 10 minutes to play on Thursday, the Gophers took a 60-57 lead on a Colton Iverson dunk with 2:12 remaining.
But during those final two minutes, freshman Austin Hollins was whistled for traveling, Blake Hoffarber threw a pass out of bounds and the Nittany Lions used an 8-0 run to reclaim the lead and drop the Gophers, keeping their own NCAA tournament hopes alive.
“It’s tough,” coach Tubby Smith said. “We have to make plays and make things happen. We didn’t do it when we had to. We had our chances.”
Penn State guard Talor Battle finished with a game-high 28 points after going 7-for-14 from beyond the arc, including a deep 3 that gave the Nittany Lions a 62-60 lead with 1:15 remaining.
“We tried to do some things and tried to find him but he has such deep range,” Smith said of Battle, who played all 40 minutes. “It really distorts your whole defense when he is so far out there.”
Leading the Gophers were Hoffarber (18 points and seven assists) and Trevor Mbakwe (16 points and 12 rebounds), but their output wasn’t enough to overcome the miscues. Minnesota had 13 turnovers compared to Penn State’s five.
“We can’t afford to have 13 turnovers,” Smith said.
Minnesota actually dominated most statistical categories, most notably a 34-22 edge on the glass. The Gophers also shot 47.1 percent from the field —including 56.5 percent in the second half — compared to Penn State’s 43.1 percent, but the Nittany Lions controlled the tempo of the game to take the Gophers out of their comfort zone. Minnesota’s 21 3-point attempts were the second-most in a conference game this season.
Penn State’s 3-point assault (12-for-31) against Minnesota’s 2-3 zone prevented the Gophers from using their size inside. They had only one block despite averaging a Big Ten-best 5.76 blocks per game.
With the loss the Gophers fall into eighth place in the conference, making their final four games essential in order to make the NCAA tournament.
“We have to really take care of the basketball and do a better job than we did tonight,” Smith said in response to a question about the upcoming schedule.
All of Minnesota’s remaining four games are against teams still clinging to NCAA tournament hopes. The Gophers have home games against Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State as well as a road game against Northwestern.
“Getting back to the Barn is going to be critical that we come ready to play and figure out how a way to get another win,” Smith said. “We have to do the next right thing, the next best thing.”
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