Gophers inside presence makes the difference

by Jabari Ritchie

INDIANAPOLIS – The conditions at Minnesota’s men’s basketball team’s first round Big Ten tournament match-up with Penn State didn’t seem ideal for an offensive explosion.

The Gophers, still stinging from last Sunday’s shocking last-minute loss to Illinois, took the floor at a sparsely populated Conseco Fieldhouse mired in their largest scoring slump of the season.

After putting at least 86 points on the board in four straight conference wins, Minnesota went six games without scoring 70 points or shooting over .500 from the field.

But despite a slow, sloppy start with just two field goals in the first 4:47 of the game, the Gophers found a way to get over the hump at the most critical point in their season.

Minnesota’s resurgent offense fueled the 84-60 win.

“It definitely feels good,” said senior forward Dusty Rychart, who scored a season-high 23 points. “We want to peak at the end of the season. That’s always been our goal.”

Led by Big Ten Freshman of the Year Rick Rickert and Rychart, who combined for 44 points, Minnesota posted its highest point total since an 86-78 win at Iowa on Feb. 9. The Gophers also shot 55.7 percent, making 20 of 32 field goals in the second half.

Rychart, the Gophers second-leading scorer over the season with 12.6 points per game, scored more than 20 for the first time against a Big Ten opponent this year.

“Obviously, everything was going pretty much right,” said Rychart, who shot 11 of 12 and scored 17 of his total in the second half. “I don’t know if it was my corn flakes this morning or what.”

With Rickert and Rychart’s point totals, the Gophers tallied two players with more than 20 points for just the second time this season. In Minnesota’s 87-71 victory at Purdue on Jan. 12 – its only other game in the state of Indiana this year – Rickert and point guard Kevin Burleson each scored 24 points.

“Those two guys are really terrific players,” said Penn State forward Tyler Smith. “I played against Dusty for four years and he got so much better every year…. He’s the most improved player to come through the Big Ten since I’ve been around.”

Minnesota’s starters dominated the Lions inside, posting a .722 field goal percentage. Minnesota out-rebounded Penn State 41-34 and scored 42 points in the paint to the Lions’ 24.

“Going into the game, we felt we had an advantage inside,” Monson said. “We had to get the ball inside to be successful in this game.”

On the other end, the Gophers avoided giving up a big run. Penn State’s longest swing was a 7-0 run midway through the second half to cut Minnesota’s lead to 14.

“We wanted to advance, so I think every player took it upon himself to play their hardest,” said Burleson, who had 16 points. “We have been playing well, but we just have had slumps in games where we don’t score for four or five minutes. In this game we decided to keep grinding and running our offense, and not try to get too many home runs.”

Jabari Ritchie covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]