Skid at 5, airball encapsulates woes

Minnesota let another close game slip away, falling to Penn State 66-63.

Gophers sophomore Rodney Williams goes for a layup against Penn State Sunday in the Williams Arena. Gophers lost to Penn State by 3 points.

Gophers sophomore Rodney Williams goes for a layup against Penn State Sunday in the Williams Arena. Gophers lost to Penn State by 3 points.

by Josh Katzenstein

Ralph SampsonâÄôs shot defined the end of the regular season.

With 31.3 seconds left in the game and 21 ticks left on the shot clock, the junior forwardâÄôs 3-point attempt fell short and bounced out of bounds.

âÄúIt was an air ball,âÄù coach Tubby Smith said. âÄúHe mustâÄôve missed the basket by a foot.âÄù

The shot from Sampson, a 20 percent career shooter from the arc, effectively sealed the Gophers menâÄôs basketball teamâÄôs 66-63 loss to Penn State on Sunday afternoon at Williams Arena.

It also marked MinnesotaâÄôs fifth-straight loss âÄî SmithâÄôs worst streak with the program âÄî and ninth defeat in 10 games as the Gophers (17-13, 6-12 Big Ten) fell short of expectations after starting the season 11-1.

SampsonâÄôs shot came after Smith called a timeout with Minnesota trailing 62-60. The play was not designed for Sampson to shoot a 3, Smith said.

âÄúHe was wide open. I think he was surprised he was so wide open,âÄù junior Trevor Mbakwe said after posting his 18th double-double with 14 rebounds and 10 points. âÄúWe have confidence that he can knock it down, and I think he just got caught off guard.âÄù

Now the Gophers must hope to catch teams off guard in the Big Ten Tournament, possibly needing to win the championship in order to reach the NCAA tournament.

Ninth-seeded Minnesota opens the conference tournament against Northwestern (17-12, 7-11) at Conseco Fieldhouse at 2:30 p.m. Thursday. Senior point guard Al NolenâÄôs return from a foot injury remains doubtful.

âÄúI donâÄôt see it happening,âÄù Smith said Sunday.

Nolen returned to practice Saturday to shoot some free throws and what he called âÄúnothing too serious.âÄù Doctors cleared him to practice but not play, and he no longer uses a walking boot.

âÄúIâÄôve got some days till [Thursday], and IâÄôm just going to try to see how it goes,âÄù Nolen said Saturday. âÄúIâÄôm still hoping for that, but right now I donâÄôt really know.âÄù

NolenâÄôs senior counterpart Blake Hoffarber carried the Gophers late on Senior Day, scoring 8 of the teamâÄôs final 9 points. He finished with 17 points but missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer with 4 seconds left âÄî and with two defenders in front of him âÄî to end the game.

âÄúWe feel bad that Blake had to end his career like this,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄúHeâÄôs a fighter. HeâÄôs a warrior. ItâÄôs his senior night, so he wants to go down fighting.âÄù

The Gophers were just 2-for-15 from behind the arc while the Nittany Lions hit 8-of-20. Penn State also made all 12 of its free throws to help hold off Minnesota late.

Sophomore Rodney Williams finished with 14 points, three steals, two blocks and five rebounds, all of which came in the first half. The smaller Penn State out-rebounded Minnesota 20-10 in the second half.

Despite jumping out to an eight-point lead early in the first half, the Gophers never led by more than three in a back-and-forth second half that saw Minnesota shoot nearly 6 percent better from the field. Late 3s from seniors Talor Battle (22 points), which gave Penn State a 59-57 lead with 1:37 to play, and Jeff Brooks (20 points) helped the Nittany Lions overcome their own deficiencies.

Smith said he had hoped for better performances from the teamâÄôs three freshmen, who combined to shoot 4-for-12 on the day with four turnovers. But if the Gophers hope to advance in the Big Ten Tournament, the upperclassmen must step up.

âÄúThe guys that are veteran players have got to give us more,âÄù Smith said. âÄúTheyâÄôve got to step up and play extraordinary. TheyâÄôve got to go beyond what they think theyâÄôre capable of doing … in order to win the next game.âÄù