CHICAGO— For the majority of Thursday night’s Big Ten Tournament game against Penn State, the Gophers felt like they were playing a step slow. The offense was out of sync and everyone lacked energy on both ends of the court. Minnesota was trailing by eight points with four minutes remaining and it felt like the game was starting to get away from them. It wasn’t until senior leaders made vocal statements in the huddle, including senior big-man Jordan Murphy.
“We were zombies,” Minnesota head coach Pitino said. “Every huddle was like me trying to get them going, and then Murph was really speaking, but the rest of them were very, very quiet…that middle part of the second half, it was able to get the emotion going, and then all of a sudden the light came on and those guys were really, really talking in huddles.”
With an NCAA tournament berth in reach, senior leaders weren’t letting their team lose.
For a large portion of the game, every Minnesota player looked like they were playing tight. Dupree McBrayer, a team captain, noticed his head coach was feeling the same way. He put his arm around Pitino and that’s when everything changed.
“Tonight, he turned to me and said, ‘you need to relax.’ And I looked at him, and I was like, ‘you relax,’” Pitino said. “But he was right, I needed to relax. But that's confidence. And when we have a relationship like that, it's very, very strong. He's a special kid.”
McBrayer attacked off the dribble, absorbed contact and knocked down a tough contested jumper.
Suddenly, energy radiated throughout United Center. One of Minnesota’s biggest leaders, physically and emotionally lifted the Gophers to a dramatic 77-72 overtime win.
The Gophers traded punches with the Nittany Lions until the final seconds of the game. Minnesota trailed 61-59 with 54 seconds remaining, but McBrayer made another play. He came off a screen and knocked down a step-back jumper, lifting the Gophers to overtime. McBrayer had 18 points on 6-for-11 shooting, completing one of his best performances of the season. It was a special moment for McBrayer, who has been overcoming the loss of his mother this season.
“[Dupree has] been appreciative of everything, and then to see just kind of the way that he was maturely able to move on, like I wouldn't be able to do that in college, and honor his mother the right way,” Pitino said. “I mean, you know she's watching, she's proud of him.
As McBrayer came to life, so did Minnesota’s team defense. Guards doubled down in the post and created deflections, which allowed the Gophers to get out in transition. That’s when senior guard Amir Coffey came to life. Coffey burst in front of the defense and delivered a massive slam dunk to begin overtime. Minnesota’s most important contributor scored 16 points over the final nine minutes, lifting the Gophers when they needed it most. Coffey shot 1-for-6 in the first half, but finally found life. He finished the night with 22 points, including ten made free throws. He fought through adversity to make plays when it mattered most.
“[It’s a] 40-minute game – [Coffey] made big plays down the stretch when we needed him to, five assists, two steals, huge steals. Came down and rebounding a couple balls and then made some big free throws,” Pitino said. “Yeah, he wasn't great offensively scoring the ball early, but he did a lot of things that were terrific.
Big-man Jordan Murphy locked up Penn State’s Lamar Stevens down the stretch, as all of the guards doubled down and created deflections. Shutting down the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer and getting on the run made all of the difference.
“[It was] huge. Stevens is a very, very talented player. I thought Gabe, Dupree, and Amir bothering those guys all got crucial steals,” Pitino said. “We needed to do that. They make it hard to double big to big, but we had to come off some of those guards because Stevens is unstoppable down there.”
Murphy finished just 4-for-12 from the floor, but his high-energy plays helped the Gophers overcome Penn State’s runs. His late drive down the baseline knotted the game at 59 and set up McBrayer’s game-tying jumper. Even when Murphy’s not dominating in the box score, he’s making an impact in other ways.
Despite allowing nine second half offensive rebounds and struggling to show consistency offensively, the Gophers managed to overcome these obstacles by playing better defense during the final nine minutes. Penn State attempted to slow things down by extending things with three-quarter court pressure. It caused some headaches for the Gophers, including several turnovers, but they finally used deflections and steals to control the tempo.
When Minnesota struggled, they didn’t have enough ball movement and relied upon dribbling. They weaved around the perimeter and the ball entered the post far too late in the shot clock. This was magnified by the additional pressure Penn State applied.
It’s been a theme throughout the season, especially when the Gophers haven’t run structured offensive sets. Neither Minnesota or Penn State played sound half court offense, but the Gophers were more physical and used tempo to fuel an overtime victory. If Minnesota can play with defensive intensity for a full 40 minutes, they are a tough matchup.
On Friday night, the Gophers will host Purdue, a team they dramatically defeated 73-69 on March 5. Three players played more than 43 minutes in Thursday’s win, so Minnesota will need to recover quickly to be ready for one of the Big Ten’s top teams.
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Tag(s): Gopher Basketball