Westbrook, Gophers outlast Penn State in Big Ten opener

The senior guard tied a career-high with 29 points in the conference victory.

Marco LaNave

As the seasonâÄôs competition made a permanent step up on Tuesday night, the Gophers got a big performance from their veteran scorer who had been relatively quiet throughout the nonconference schedule. In the Big Ten opener, senior guard Lawrence Westbrook tied a career high with 29 points to lead the Gophers (1-0 Big Ten, 10-3 overall) to a 75-70 victory over Penn State (0-1, 8-5) in front of a sellout crowd at Williams Arena. âÄúThe Big Ten season is where all the men play,âÄù Westbrook said. âÄúIf youâÄôre a player, you step up and you make plays. IâÄôve been waiting for this game for a long time; I couldnâÄôt even sleep [Monday] night.âÄù Hours before TuesdayâÄôs game, Westbrook was practicing shooting when Penn State coach Ed DeChellis brought his team into Williams Arena for an afternoon practice. âÄúI always like to get in extra shots,âÄù Westbrook said. âÄúI decided to go in and shoot for an hour before they came in.âÄù Westbrook has scored in double digits in all but two games in which he has played this season, but he led the Gophers in scoring just once in the last 10 games. Westbrook had 32 combined points in four previous games against Penn State, but on Tuesday he was better than All-Big Ten guard Talor Battle, who scored 23 points to lead the Nittany Lions. âÄúHeâÄôs a great player; I knew I had to step up my game today,âÄù Westbrook said. Penn State turned a 34-27 halftime deficit into a 44-39 lead seven minutes into the second half. Junior guard Blake Hoffarber and Westbrook each made 3-point shots before Hoffarber hit a 3-pointer to tie the game 48-48 with 11:07 remaining. The teams fought through four ties in four minutes before Westbrook hit a 2-point jumper that put Minnesota ahead for good, 58-56, with 6:37 to play. Westbrook made two more 3-pointers and the Gophers made five of their final six free throws to seal a close victory. âÄúWe werenâÄôt as composed [at the end of games, and] it really hurt us last year,âÄù senior forward Damian Johnson said. This season, Minnesota failed in late comeback attempts against Portland, Texas A&M and Miami. âÄúIt was a good test, because we hadnâÄôt really made a comeback yet this year,âÄù Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said. âÄúWeâÄôd really struggled in that area.âÄù The Gophers honored the 1989-90 Elite Eight team in an on-court ceremony at halftime. Former Gophers coach Clem Haskins (1986-99) was not on the court to start the ceremony, but Smith, who had the microphone, told the fans he wanted them to show appreciation for Haskins. As the crowd gave Haskins and the team a standing ovation, Haskins left his seat a few rows behind the Gophers bench. He waved to the crowd and then embraced his former players as they gathered around him. The team’s achievement 20 years ago is officially the farthest any Gophers team has gone in the NCAA Tournament, as the 1997 Final Four appearance under Haskins was later vacated.