Gophers overcome double-digit hole to nip Penn State

It wasn’t pretty, but then again, it rarely is in the Big Ten.

The Minnesota men’s basketball team overcame a 13-point first-half deficit, then nearly let a 13-point second-half lead slip away, but ended Sunday afternoon back at .500 in conference play after a 75-68 win over Penn State at Williams Arena.

Sophomore guard Lawrence Westbrook, who hit four free throws late to put the game on ice, scored a team-high 15 points for the Gophers, who had four players score in double figures.

“We did what we had to do to win the ball game,” coach Tubby Smith said. “We made the stops we had to make.”

When the two teams met on Jan. 12 in State College, Pa., Minnesota overcame a 16-point second-half deficit to win 76-73.

The Gophers (17-9 overall, 7-7 Big Ten) put together a similar rally Sunday, although it came much earlier.

Minnesota entered the day as the best three-point shooting team in the Big Ten at 37.9 percent from downtown. But, at least early, the other team on the Williams Arena floor Sunday afternoon – the Nittany Lions – were the dangerous perimeter threat.

Penn State (12-14, 4-10) hit six of its first seven three-point attempts and built a 31-18 lead following a three-pointer by Lions guard Danny Morrissey.

But eventually, Penn State, which started the game a scorching 10-of-13, cooled off and Minnesota, which at one point was shooting 32 percent after missing 11 straight shots, heated up to get back in the game.

The Gophers went on a 17-6 run to end the first half, which was highlighted by a pull-up three-pointer by freshman guard Blake Hoffarber with under a minute remaining that tied the score at 35.

A turnaround jumper by Penn State’s Stanley Pringle right before the half gave the Lions a 37-35 lead at intermission, but the momentum was still with Minnesota.

Senior guard Lawrence McKenzie, who finished with 11 points, hit a three on the Gophers’ opening possession to give Minnesota its first lead since 10-7.

That basket started an 11-0 run for the Gophers out of the locker room.

And as Penn State, which shot 63.6 percent in the first half, went without a field goal for a stretch of 5:43 and shot 31 percent in the second half, Minnesota’s lead reached as many as 13 following a three-pointer by freshman guard Al Nolen, three with five and a half minutes remaining.

But Minnesota, as Penn State did in State College, nearly threw the game away with missed free throws.

The Gophers missed 16-of-28, including eight in the second half and Penn State cut the Gophers lead to 71-68 with under a minute remaining.

“For some reason, I don’t know, something changed, McKenzie said. “We felt we had this one in the bag.”

Strangely enough though, free throws by Westbrook preserved the win.

“He made his free throws down the stretch when everyone else was struggling,” Smith said. He’s as tough as we have. He doesn’t back down.”

Said Westbrook: “Coach always says, this is college basketball and teams don’t quit. I think (holding on) says a lot about our team.”