Co-captain Burleson paces men’s hoops 84-60 victory

Brian Hall

INDIANAPOLIS – Minnesota point guard Kevin Burleson calmly walked the ball up the court with just over 11 minutes remaining in the Gophers opening game of the Big Ten tournament.

Penn State had finished a 7-0 run and cut Minnesota’s lead to 14 points. It was the type of run which earlier this year would have begun a Gophers meltdown.

But Burleson, who was taken out of the starting unit earlier this season, showed the leadership that made him a team captain.

Burleson became the floor general Minnesota needed to defeat the Lions 84-60 on Thursday night at the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

The Gophers (17-11, 10-7 Big Ten) play third-seed Illinois on Friday at 8:00 p.m.

“He no doubt was the catalyst,” coach Dan Monson said. “It’s tough to pick one guy in a team effort like this, but if you had to pick one, Kevin was it.”

And how. One minute Burleson was taking his teammates aside, telling them to keep up their effort; another minute he was flying out of bounds while calling a timeout to preserve a Minnesota possession.

Burleson responded the way a captain should in a must-win affair, especially after receiving a tongue lashing from his coach.

With the Gophers holding a 12-point advantage, Burleson didn’t actively contest an open three-point attempt by Sharif Chambliss, which hit the bottom of the net. Monson immediately replaced his point guard.

“I was mad myself when he pulled me out,” Burleson said. “I just wanted to get back in there and make up for it.”

And he made up for it in a big way. Burleson scored 16 points – his highest output since scoring 24 against Purdue on Jan. 12 – and was one of four players in double figures. Forwards Rick Rickert, Dusty Rychart and Jerry Holman were the others.

In a game that the higher seed Gophers should have won, they did everything to insure the win, even accepting a modest challenge from the Lions in the second half.

Led by Burleson, Minnesota refused to let Penn State (7-21, 3-14) claw its way back. Instead, the Gophers resiliently followed the game plan of going inside, and didn’t settle for outside jumpers, a weak spot throughout the season.

“We usually try to get it back quick, go for the home run,” Burleson said. “But, we knew it was a long game. We just had to grind it out and stick with it.”

Minnesota turned in its biggest scoring output since dropping 86 against Iowa on Feb. 9 and the 25-point margin was its largest in Big Ten play.

“We have had up and down stretches,” Rychart said. “This is the stretch where we need the most productive offensive unit and today is a good start. But we need to play better defense against Illinois.”

The Gophers face the Illini (23-7, 11-5) on Friday, hoping to avenge their one-point, last second loss to Illinois last Sunday at Williams Arena – a game which still might cause Minnesota to miss the NCAA tournament.

“It’s tough when you lose like that,” Burleson said. “It’s on your mind all week. I know tomorrow we’re going to play our hearts out.”

It will take a complete effort from the Gophers to defeat the hottest team in the conference. Illinois has won eight straight games and swept Minnesota in two meetings this season.

“This is March Madness,” Burleson said. “I can’t wait. This is what you play for.”

Brian Hall covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]