Gophers top Penn State, will face Wisconsin

Minnesota likely needs one more win to earn an NCAA Tournament berth.

Jace Frederick

Minnesota needed two wins over Penn State in a five day span — no one doubted that.

And the Gophers, who have been so up-and-down this season, delivered two solid performances to do just that — the second a 63-56 win over the Nittany Lions in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.

“We found a way to get it done,” head coach Richard Pitino said. “ We found a way to get stops when we needed to, make big plays when we needed to.”

Minnesota needed this victory. Thanks to losses from fellow bubble teams like California, Utah and Arkansas, the Gophers moved up to the first team out of the tournament in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s projected field.

That was before the win. Where do the Gophers stand now? It’s tough to say. A win over Penn State doesn’t do too much to help Minnesota’s resume but a loss would have killed it.

“I thought that if we won tonight and things went our way, we could be in,” Pitino said. “You get to 20 wins, you get a top-five strength of schedule in the country, I believe that you’re rewarded when you play a great schedule. That’s normally what happens.”

Minnesota still lacks a quality road win on its resume. A neutral-court victory over No. 12 Wisconsin on Friday in the Big Ten quarterfinals could go a long way toward making up for that, though.

The Gophers beat Wisconsin at home back in January, but loss in the most-recent meeting between the two teams on Feb. 13.

“Wisconsin is a very good team,” junior guard Andre Hollins said. “They’re consistent in everything they do. … We’re just going to have to play a solid game against them.”

The Gophers have the opportunity to play the Badgers thanks to another outstanding performance from senior guard Austin Hollins. Hollins, who had struggled to get much of anything going for much of the Big Ten, scored 18 points on 4-for-7 shooting from distance to continue his recent resurgence.

Hollins has poured in 75 points over the last four games.

“I think he’s just getting really confident, and you see it,” Pitino said. “He just keeps plugging away, and I’m happy for him because he really deserved it.”

Penn State struggled to shoot the ball all night. The Nittany Lions hit on just more than 32 percent of their shots from the field. Penn State was 5 for 21 from deep.

Still, the Nittany Lions were able to hang around, largely thanks to their work on the offensive glass. Penn State ripped down 15 offensive boards.

“I think, more than anything, our guards just needed to start coming back and getting rebounds,” Pitino said. “I thought we adjusted much better in the second half.”

Penn State went on a run late to trim the Gophers lead to three points in the final minute.

But Andre Hollins, who’d been struggling all night with his shot, hit a three with 15 seconds left to secure the win.

“He’s so eager to make a play,” Pitino said. “He doesn’t seem like a fierce competitor because he’s such a smiley, happy kid, but he is as competitive as it gets. He was dying to hit that big shot, and he certainly did it.”

And because of that shot, the Gophers NCAA hopes are alive and well. But they bigger other goals this weekend than just sneaking in via an at-large berth.

“Our focus right now is really the Big Ten Tournament,” Austin Hollins said. “We want to win four in a row. … We knew in order to do that you have to win the first game, and that was the most important one for us.”