Freshman Joe Coleman had a career-high 23 points as the Gophers won their second consecutive road game Sunday, defeating Penn State 80-66 in University Park, Pa.
Coleman made 13 of 14 free throws in a game defined by physical play. Minnesota and Penn State combined to commit 52 fouls and shoot 72 free throws.
The Gophers (14-5, 2-4 Big Ten) shot 33-for-44 from the charity stripe and 21-for-38 (55 percent) from the field in the win.
Their five starters — Coleman, Julian Welch, Austin Hollins, Rodney Williams and Ralph Sampson III — combined to shoot 18-for-29 from the field, and all but Sampson scored in double figures.
Welch had 15 points, and Williams added 14 points on 8-for-11 free-throw shooting.
Williams also had eight rebounds, but Minnesota was dominated on the glass for most of the night. The Nittany Lions (9-10, 1-5 Big Ten) had 16 offensive rebounds, which resulted in 18 second-chance points. The Gophers had just five offensive rebounds and six second-chance points.
Minnesota trailed 20-13 midway through the first half before going on a 20-8 run during which Coleman scored all 12 of his first-half points.
Penn State cut the Gophers’ lead to 33-31 at halftime and scored the opening bucket of the second half.
Then Coleman took over again. The freshman scored the Gophers’ first six points of the second half — four on free throws — as part of an 11-0 run that gave them a 39-33 lead.
Minnesota was in control the rest of the way, playing efficiently on offense and tough on defense despite allowing many second-chance opportunities.
Penn State shot a conference season-low 30 percent from the field (18-for-60) and 7-for-24 from 3-point range, while totaling seven assists and 13 turnovers.
Head coach Tubby Smith praised Coleman’s performance after the game.
“He’s just such a hard worker, such a committed player, that you knew he was just going to eventually blossom,” Smith said. “Now he’s making free throws, and the more he makes the more confidence he gets and the more confidence we have in him.”
“He’s just a relentless and hard-nosed kid, and that’s what we needed — we needed that type of toughness, and he brings that every day in practice. It’s been a big key to the way we’ve played lately.”
Coleman has averaged a team-high 15.0 points since moving to the starting lineup Jan. 8 in a 79-66 loss to Purdue, leading the Gophers to a 2-1 record.
In Thursday’s 77-73 upset at then No. 7 Indiana, he scored eight points in his second start, including four free throws in the final 40 seconds to clinch the win.
Since Big Ten play began Dec. 27, Coleman has shot 25-for-27 from the free-throw line.
Smith says his freshman’s confidence on the court has affected his teammates as well — specifically sophomore Hollins.
Hollins played 17 minutes off the bench against the Boilermakers and scored five points, and then returned to the starting lineup against the Hoosiers and dropped a season-high 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting in 33 minutes.
In Sunday’s win against Penn State, Hollins had 12 points on 3-for-3 shooting and five assists in 19 minutes.
“We inserted [Coleman] in the lineup, and I think it gave Austin some confidence too,” Smith said. “He’s played very well since that time.”
Minnesota’s new starting lineup — which features Welch at point guard, Hollins at shooting guard and Coleman at small forward — has led the team to win back-to-back road games for the first time since Jan. 8-15, 2009.
Yet Smith said Sunday was “a tough day for our back court” because Welch and Coleman each committed four turnovers. As a team, Minnesota had 17 turnovers, which resulted in 16 points for Penn State.
The Gophers had a conference season-low 11 turnovers against Indiana, but gave up the ball several times in the final minute, when the Hoosiers scored 12 points to nearly complete a miraculous comeback.
“We’ve got to play smarter than we did. … We’ve got to be tougher with the turnovers and taking care of the ball,” Smith said. “Penn State is a good team, and when they get after you defensively and pressure you, they’ve got quickness and they’re very aggressive so you have to fight through it, and I thought our guys did that.”
The Big Ten named Coleman its Freshman of the Week on Monday — the first conference honor the Gophers have earned this season.
Minnesota will try to earn its first conference home win next Sunday against Northwestern (12-5, 2-3 Big Ten).
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