Following a frustrating 95-68 loss at Illinois, there was a nervous energy among fans at Williams Arena Saturday. The Gophers, a team on the edge of NCAA Tournament contention, couldn't afford a second consecutive loss to a Big Ten opponent without a win in conference play.
The result was in doubt right up until the final whistle, but Minnesota (14-4, 4-3 Big Ten) ultimately defeated Penn State (7-12, 0-8 Big Ten) 65-64 in dramatic fashion. A game full of twists came down to a last-second free throw and a missed shot at the buzzer.
"[They] found a way to gut it out," said head coach Richard Pitino. "Just made some spectacular winning plays. It was important for us to get our confidence back."
Minnesota didn't play like a team in desperate need of a victory initially. Penn State scored at the rim at will early on, getting out to a 20-10 lead at the 10:38 mark of the first half.
It briefly appeared that Minnesota had stolen momentum. The Gophers fought back and freshman Gabe Kalscheur had a clean look at a 3-pointer that would have given Minnesota the lead late in the first half. However, his shot bounced off the side of the rim and Penn State closed on an 8-2 run over the last two minutes to give them a 38-30 lead at half time.
Leading the attack for the Nittany Lions was junior Lamar Stevens, who scored from seemingly wherever he wanted. In the first half he scored 17 points and made all three of his 3-point attempts. He finished with 27 points on 9-17 shooting.
On Penn State's first possession of the second half, Stevens converted a three-point play to give his team their largest lead of the evening at 11 points. After that, the game belonged to Minnesota. The Gophers kept the game close for the next five minutes, then went on a 16-5 run to take a 56-53 lead at the under-eight media timeout.
"They realized Penn State is a good team," Pitino said of his players. "I think we had to wake up a little bit there."
Minnesota eventually led by seven but could never extend its lead beyond that. Penn State fought back, mounting a comeback of their own. With 11 seconds left, Stevens completed a 3-point play to tie the game at 64.
On the next possession, senior Dupree McBrayer drove to the hoop and got fouled at the rim with 2.7 seconds left. After missing the first freethrow, he calmly drained the second. Stevens missed an open mid-range jump-shot at the buzzer to the relief of the home fans.
"It felt really good," said redshirt sophomore Eric Curry of McBrayer's winning free throw. "I knew we were going to get a stop, him making that free throw just gave our team a boost of confidence."
Senior Jordan Murphy stuffed the stat sheet on Saturday, collecting a career-high 21 rebounds. He also led the team in points (19) and assists (6).
"Coach [Pitino] told me to keep my mind on rebounding," Murphy said. "I was too much in my head in the first half. He told me just keep my mind on rebounding and everything else would follow, that's what I did."
Junior Amir Coffey added 11 points of his own despite another rough shooting night, going 3-11 from the field. Curry had his best performance of the year in his sixth game back from injury, scoring a season-high 11 points.
Minnesota will have a quick turnaround before possibly their biggest challenge of the year. The Gophers take on No. 2 Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan on Tuesday. The Wolverines suffered their first loss of the season Saturday against Wisconsin.