U keeps NCAA hopes alive with win

by Murali Balaji

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Road woes keeping you down?
Afraid that the NCAA tournament selection committee may pass you over?
Well, look no further than Penn State, which has provided a sort of therapy for teams struggling to win away from home.
That is what the Gophers found out Wednesday in their 69-63 win against the Lions, a victory that put Minnesota back into contention for a spot in the NCAA tournament.
The Gophers won despite the absence of guard Kevin Clark, who was hindered by serious seizures in the last 48 hours, played limited minutes and was held out of the scoring column for the first time this year.
“We dedicated this game to Kevin Clark,” Gophers coach Clem Haskins said. “He’s been in the hospital for two straight nights but he was determined to make the trip.”
But Clark’s absence made it possible for the team’s younger players — namely guard Mitch Ohnstad, forward Dusty Rychart and center Joel Przybilla — to step up their games.
For many players, there is nothing more motivating than playing a nemesis.
For Przybilla, the perfect remedy for his freshman slump was Penn State center Calvin Booth, whom Przybilla had so effectively countered in the first meeting between the two teams earlier in the year.
“This is just one of those games I get pumped up for,” said Przybilla, who finished with 15 points and six rebounds. “Booth is one of the best big men in college basketball.”
The Lions started the game looking nothing like the team that had so dearly struggled to win this season, jumping out to a 19-13 lead and a 38-33 advantage at the intermission. Using Booth to chip away at the Gophers’ interior, Penn State appeared ready and willing to capitalize on Minnesota’s frustrations and lack of confidence on the road.
Booth, who had a team-high 21 points, was effective early, scoring seven of the team’s first 11 points. The 6-foot-11 senior’s combination of outside jump shots and baseline penetration moves made it difficult for Minnesota to utilize double teams against him.
However, Przybilla was equal to the task, scoring 10 quick points while keeping the Penn State defense honest against Lewis. The 7-foot-1 freshman attacked the basket with confidence and voraciousness as he looked much like the first-year sensation who garnered accolades earlier in the year.
In fact, Lewis and Przybilla scored 19 of the team’s first 21 points, effectively neutralizing the damage inflicted by the combination Booth and forward Titus Ivory on the other end of the court. The Przybilla-Lewis tandem finished the first half with 12 and 11 points, respectively.
The Gophers surged in the opening minutes of the second half to tie the game at 40. Guard Terrance Simmons, who had one of his most solid all-around performances of the season, scored five of the team’s first seven points in the half and effectively directed the team’s halfcourt set.
However, Penn State regained the lead with three-pointers by guards Joe Crispin and Greg Grays and capitalized on Minnesota’s sudden cold shooting during the middle stretch of the half. The Gophers clawed their way back to a 60-59 lead with four minutes remaining, thanks to the stellar defense of Ohnstad.
Ohnstad, known primarily for his outside shooting, hawked the Lions’ ball-handlers, forcing three turnovers in a two-minute stretch and helping convert them into Minnesota transition points. Rychart, who tied a career-high with 11 points, also pitched in during the run, grabbing crucial rebounds and following up missed buckets.
Ohnstad’s steal and subsequent assist to Lewis gave Minnesota a 64-61 advantage with 1:15 remaining, allowing Haskins to turn up the heat against a Penn State team that was beginning to self-destruct with turnovers and missed opportunities.
Lewis’s turnaround trey with 17.9 seconds to go nudged the Gopher lead to four and sealed the Gophers’ first Big Ten road win of the season.
“I credit the coaches for giving me that shot,” said Lewis, who had a game-high 24 points. “They told me to put it up, and, luckily for us, it went in.”
Penn State coach Jerry Dunn was more willing to consider Lewis’ shot a stake through the heart of his team, one that prevented them from winning only their second conference game of the season at home.
“I thought we defended Quincy Lewis as well as we could on that play,” Dunn said. “He still made that shot. It’s the same storyline — a sickening storyline.”