Men’s hoops squeak past Lions 76-75

by Anthony Maggio

The only difference between an almost certain one-way ticket to the NIT and new life in Minnesota’s men’s basketball team’s quest for a Big Ten title was Michael Bauer’s fingertips.

Bauer’s right hand tipped away Brandon Watkins’ pass under Penn State’s basket to preserve a 76-75 victory for the Gophers in Happy Valley on Wednesday night.

“This was not an easy win,” Minnesota coach Dan Monson said. “If somebody had told me before the game that we’d win by one point, I would have done cartwheels.”

In a clash of futility, Minnesota (11-6, 3-3 Big Ten) had to win its first road game of the season or the Lions (5-12, 0-6) would win their first conference game of the season.

The Gophers said before the game they expected to win at Penn State. And after taking a 45-33 lead into halftime, it looked like Minnesota would pull to .500 in the conference with relative ease.

But the Gophers didn’t come out the same in the second half.

After Aaron Johnson hit a jumper in the opening minute to pull the Lions within 10, Minnesota played out of sync, as if it didn’t have a lead. There was no hint of any killer instinct.

The Gophers kept a 10-point cushion for a few minutes, but the Lions surged on a 12-2 run to tie the game at 53 with 12:17 left to play.

Still, Minnesota’s defense didn’t tighten the screws.

Watkins controlled the tempo as the Lions seemingly turned every defensive rebound into a fast break. If Watkins didn’t hit a pull up jumper, Johnson or Ndu Egekeze finished with a layup.

Penn State shot a blazing 51.6 percent from the floor in the second half.

After Watkins hit his third straight bucket in as many possessions, the Gophers found themselves down six points with 5:30 remaining.

“He took advantage of the situation and tried to get in an open area,” Penn State coach Jerry Dunn said. “He really tried to get in the mid area and when there is room for mistakes, he takes a chance.”

Minnesota’s situation seemed on the verge of disastrous, with forwards Bauer and Jerry Holman both on the floor with four fouls.

But the two big men refrained from fouling out, and Penn State would hit only one field goal the rest of the game to give Minnesota a chance.

Down three in the final minute, Rick Rickert hit 4-of-4 from the free throw line. His last two came with 7.6 seconds left to swing the Gophers’ one-point deficit into a one-point lead.

“The reason Rick came to Minnesota was to be on the line like that,” Monson said. “He’s a gamer and he knows how to win. I was very happy to have him at the line there at the end.”

Bauer’s tipped passed then sealed the victory for Minnesota.

“We had a good five minutes at the end,” Monson said. “We were resilient and dug it out. I’m really proud that we did stay together.”

The Gophers had trouble containing Watkins all evening, and the senior guard led the Lions with 20 points.

Johnson, a walk-on freshman, added 18 points and pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds.

Minnesota again lost the battle of the boards, 31-27, marking the fifth time in six conference games the Gophers have been outrebounded.

Bauer led Minnesota with 20 points, half of which came from the free-throw line. Nine of his 10 points from the charity stripe came in the first half.

Rickert and Maurice Hargrow both chipped in 13 points for the Gophers.

Anthony Maggio covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]