Win ties Gophers for third in Big Ten

Anthony Maggio

Dan Monson said it himself after Minnesota’s men’s basketball team’s contest with Penn State on Saturday night.

“We didn’t probably play our best game that we have here in the last couple of weeks. We took a little step back I thought, mostly in the rebounding department.”

But the Gophers still won by 15 points. After a sluggish first half, Minnesota pulled away for a 77-62 win in front of 13,813 at Williams Arena.

The Gophers (16-7, 8-4 Big Ten) scrapped their way to their fourth straight victory – their seventh in eight games – and leapfrogged Purdue to move into a tie for third place with Illinois.

Winning the past four games doesn’t secure anything for Minnesota’s postseason hopes, but any losses could have crippled the Gophers.

An invitation to the NCAA tournament will depend on Minnesota’s final four games, three of which are on the road. The only home game is against Wisconsin, a team that has beaten the Gophers in their last four contests.

Two wins in its final four games should land Minnesota in the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 1998-99 season.

In order to steal a game on the road, the Gophers must continue their hustle on defense, particularly in their full-court press.

Using a full-court defense for most of the contest, Minnesota sped up the Lions (6-17, 1-11) offense, forcing them into a season high 25 turnovers.

Meanwhile, the Gophers’ defensive intensity and scrappy play earned them 18 steals, their most in a game this season.

Minnesota’s defensive energy has been key throughout its win streak.

“These last several games we’ve been pretty scrappy,” guard Maurice Hargrow said. “We’ve been getting a lot of rebounds and loose balls that we weren’t getting earlier in the season that were hurting us in one-possession games.”

As a result, lately Gophers opponents have been turning the ball over more while Minnesota’s steal and rebounding numbers are up.

In the last four games, the Gophers are averaging 11.5 steals while forcing an average of 18 turnovers.

Minnesota capitalized against Penn State, scoring 28 points off turnovers.

The Gophers were out-rebounded by six on Saturday, but had won the rebounding battle by five boards or more in their four prior contests.

And while the defense and rebounding improve, Minnesota continues to win by large margins. The Gophers have won the past four games by an average of 15.5 points.

“When you’ve got a lot of scorers sometimes you don’t do those scrappy plays because you depend so much on your scoring ability,” guard Kevin Burleson said. “Those scrappy plays are what the great teams have. I think we’re getting guys to do that.”

In addition, Rick Rickert has stepped up his scoring of late. The sophomore forward poured in 26 points on 11-of-19 shooting against the Lions. Rickert is averaging 22.5 points per game during the Gophers’ win streak.

“He’s being more aggressive,” Monson said. “That aggressiveness has really helped us. Now it’s a challenge to stay that aggressive.”

Minnesota will need aggressiveness from everyone entering its final stretch. The Gophers can finish no worse than .500 in the conference, but that guarantees nothing for post-season play.

But from what Penn State coach Jerry Dunn saw on Saturday, Minnesota can do some damage if it keeps up the scrappy play it has displayed the last three weeks.

“I think Dan’s done a good job with these guys,” Dunn said. “If they get in the (NCAA) tournament they’ll be a tough team to contend with.”

If the Gophers get two more wins, the “ifs” can change to “whens.”

Anthony Maggio covers men’s basketball and

welcomes comments at [email protected]