Desperate Minnesota squad ends losing streak

by Zach Eisendrath

It took career days from two role players, but Minnesota’s men’s basketball team finally has a reward for its hard work.

Led by the surprising play of redshirt freshman Kevin Payton and sophomore Jonathan Williams, the Gophers snapped their five-game losing streak with a 65-60 win over Penn State at Williams Arena on Saturday afternoon.

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“We needed to survive and we played like a desperate team,” junior guard Lawrence McKenzie said. “Coach (Molinari) gave us a speech before the game that if we equate winning to living and losing to dying, which would we rather have? We have to play each game like that.”

Playing with poise and confidence unforeseen during its skid, Minnesota solved nearly every problem it’s been having for the past month.

Surprisingly, the Gophers (8-13 overall, 2-5 Big Ten) found others to bear the scoring load which had previously been dumped on the shoulders of McKenzie and junior forward Dan Coleman.

And finally, after weeks of searching for a dependable inside presence since the loss of junior center Spencer Tollackson to a left hand injury, Minnesota found a more than dependable big man in Williams.

Williams commanded the paint from the get-go, setting career highs in points (13) and rebounds (14).

“I am one of those people who thinks outlook determines outcome,” interim coach Jim Molinari said. “I think motivation is telling people they can do more than they believe they can.

“Jon has always seen himself as a defensive player but we have really been pushing him to become more aggressive.”

Most encouraging, however, might have been the way Payton commanded the court at the point.

Earlier this season, Molinari went as far as saying Payton was fit for the shooting guard position.

But with junior point guard Limar Wilson sidelined due to illness, Payton had no problem being Minnesota’s floor general. In 38 minutes of work, he scored a career-high 12 points and dished out eight assists.

“We wanted to get the ball to Kevin to push it up the court after a miss and a steal, and he did all of those things today,” Molinari said. “And we got the added bonus of his scoring. Eight assists and one turnover is great.”

And thanks to the offensive output of Payton and Williams, life was that much easier for others. McKenzie was his usual self, scoring a team-high 19 points and connecting on five of 10 three-pointers, but he credited his good shooting to the openings given to him by the effectiveness of Payton and Williams.

“I have not seen a lot of those open looks lately,” he said. “Having Big Jon playing well down low and KP hitting open jumpers got me a lot of those open looks.”

Those open looks McKenzie received led to 13 first-half points, which helped Minnesota turn an eight-point deficit into a 35-33 halftime lead.

Playing with the momentum that came with an energized home crowd, the Gophers advanced their lead up to 10 early in the second half. But Penn State quickly got back in the game, in large part due to the play of junior guard Geary Claxton.

Claxton, who led the Nittany Lions (10-10, 1-6) with 20 points, helped cut Minnesota’s lead to one on several occasions to put a scare into the Gophers.

But Minnesota – which hit 10 threes on the day – went back to its bread and butter as Payton converted from behind the arc with 1:30 left to play to make it a two possession game, giving the maroon-and- gold faithful something to celebrate.

After the team’s first win in more than three weeks, Payton could hardly put into words what the win meant to the Gophers.

“We just needed a win to build confidence, to get respect,” he said. “To show everybody we are capable and that every time you see Minnesota on the map, you can’t just circle a win. No, you’re going to have to reckon with us because we are a legitimate Big Ten team.”