While all five of Minnesota’s men’s basketball seniors started Saturday’s game against Penn State, it was two of them – Michael Bauer and Ben Johnson – who secured a Gophers victory.
Bauer and Johnson combined to score 10 of Minnesota’s last 14 points on Senior Night en route to a 78-62 win at Williams Arena.
With the victory, the Gophers (11-17, 3-13 Big Ten) tied the Lions for last place in the Big Ten conference. However, the Gophers leapfrogged Penn State (9-18, 3-13) in the conference tournament seeding because of the tie-breaker rules.
Although the win was the last home game for the seniors, Minnesota coach Dan Monson saw the victory as the start of a new season. The Gophers concluded the regular season and will begin the conference tournament Thursday in Indianapolis.
Minnesota opens play against Purdue at 1:30 p.m. The Boilermakers swept the Gophers in both meetings this season.
Claiming the tournament title – winning four games in four days – is the only way Minnesota will have a postseason berth.
“I think we feel if we play well, we can play with anyone in the league,” Monson said after coaching his first Senior Night victory at Minnesota. “We are more worried about us playing well. We played 30 pretty good minutes (Saturday) and we got to go down there and play 40 good minutes. I think if we do, we have an excellent chance no matter who (our opponent) is.”
The win was a solid tuneup for the tournament, a happy sendoff for the seniors and a record day for Kris Humphries.
Aside from a slow start, Minnesota finished with four players scoring in double figures, forced shaky guard play by the Lions and pulled away in the final 10 minutes.
The game turned early in the second half after Minnesota went into the break ahead 34-33. While both teams went on separate five-minute scoreless stretches in the first half, Minnesota opened the second half more calm and composed.
Much of the first-half troubles can be attributed to the Senior Night festivities. Monson said the seniors came out nervous (Johnson had two of his three turnovers in the opening four minutes) while the underclassmen pressed to get a win for their soon-to-be departing teammates.
“It was a lot of fun but there was a lot of emotion flying,” Bauer said. “It’s just a great way to leave.”
Minnesota never got into a rhythm, allowing the Lions to shoot 52 percent in the half and struggling to move the ball efficiently on offense.
But in the second half, the Gophers pulled away behind a tenacious half-court trap that forced eight turnovers – 17 for the game, including 13 by Penn State’s two primary ball handlers – and the play of Johnson.
The Gophers opened the half on a 9-3 run and slowly built the lead.
“In the second half, we had no one to stop the bleeding,” Penn State coach Ed DeChellis said.
“We made a point to get into the trap and get after them and it ended up helping us out a lot,” Humphries said.
Johnson scored 19 of his 22 points in the final minutes, many coming in transition.
Humphries, who returned to action after missing last Saturday’s game against Iowa with an ankle injury, scored 25 points and become the first freshman in conference history to top the conference scoring and rebounding charts.
The Gophers finished the game with a 50.8 shooting percentage, scored their 30 baskets on 26 assists and earned only their second Big Ten win at home.
But more importantly, Minnesota got the momentum for the Big Ten Tournament it desperately had been seeking the last two weeks.
“This game builds into (the tournament),” Johnson said. “We can salvage a lot. The biggest thing is to go in there on a high note, feeling good about ourselves. If we can go in there like we are capable of going in there, we can cause some damage.”