Anthony Kwan, Daily File Photo
The Gophers lost to No. 9 Penn State for the third time this season on Friday night.
Penn State edged out a 78-74 win to eliminate Minnesota from the Big Ten tournament in the secon round.
“[I am] very proud of our team’s effort today. We fought. I thought we battled until the very end,” head coach Pam Borton said in her postgame press conference.
The Gophers carried over momentum from their Friday blowout of Wisconsin right away and battled to the final buzzer, but they were unable to pull out a win over the tournament’s top-seeded team.
The Nittany Lions went on a 16-2 run to start the second half and led 45-38 before Minnesota called timeout.
Their lead reached 13 points before the Gophers started to chip away.
Minnesota pulled to within four with just 2:02 left on a Kiara Buford jumper.
The Gophers had to resort to fouling the first player who got possession of the ball during the game’s last minute.
They double-teamed Maggie Lucas, Penn State’s most prolific scorer and best free throw shooter, to ensure that she could not get the ball and thus be fouled.
Alex Bentley was fouled twice and missed three of four shots. The Gophers moved to within two points on two late free throws by Buford.
But they were unable to convert on their next possession, as Banham tried a jumper in the lane and the ball went out of bounds off Micaella Riche.
“I was trying to attack, get in the lane and score and hopefully get fouled, but I think it would have probably been a little smarter if I would have shot it,” Banham said.
Penn State’s Zacque Gray hit two free throws on the next possession.
Banham hit a long 3-pointer to cut the Nittany Lions’ lead to 76-74 with five seconds left, but Lucas put the game away with two free throws.
“I thought we easily could have put it down in the dumps when we came down in the second half at the beginning, and we fought back and took it all the way to the wire and we played hard,” Buford said.
Minnesota didn’t get the end result it wanted, and a big part of it can be attributed to its second-half play.
The Gophers put together 8-0 and 9-0 runs in the first half and had a 36-27 lead at halftime.
They played well in transition and had 10 fastbreak points to the Nittany Lions’ two in the first half.
They also held Penn State to just 10-for-34 shooting in the opening frame.
The second half was a different story.
“I felt like we came out of the locker room and weren’t as aggressive. [We were] a little tentative. [We] stopped doing some of the things that we did defensively in the first half to really set the tone in the second half,” Borton said.
With 3.6 seconds left in the first half, guard Leah Cotton crashed headfirst into the scorers’ table diving for a loose ball.
After about five minutes, Cotton got up and walked off under her own power. She returned to the bench, but not to the game.
Cotton is Minnesota’s best defensive guard, and she was missed in the second half.
“I think our ball pressure changed in the second half right at the very beginning,” Borton said. “I think there was less pressure on the ball.”
The Gophers also ran into foul trouble at power forward.
Kionna Kellogg picked up her fourth foul with 14:31 left in the second half and Jackie Voigt picked up her fourth with 10:13 remaining.
For the second consecutive game, the Gophers got double-digit scoring from four players.
Banham led the way with 25 points and went 10-for-21 shooting. She also led all players with nine rebounds.
Buford, who started the game with six points in less than four minutes, finished with 19.
Voigt and Brianna Mastey finished with 10 points apiece.
Buford, Voigt, and Mastey are all seniors, and Borton is hopeful that this was not their last game as a member of the Gophers.
Borton said that the team is holding out hope that they can earn a bid to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
The team with the top record in each major conference that does not make it to the NCAA Tournament earns an automatic bid to the WNIT.
Borton said she thought that the seven teams in front Minnesota “should get in hands down.”
The WNIT field will be announced March 12, after NCAA berths are announced.