Donnelly: Gophers set up rematch against Penn State in Big Ten tourney
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Don't blame Gophers fans for experiencing a little bit of déjà vu on Sunday night.
Watching Penn State roar back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to put the Gophers on their heels sure seemed familiar.
But this time the Gophers held on.
After the Nittany Lions whittled a 25-point Minnesota lead down to single digits in a span of about four minutes, DeAndre Mathieu did what he's done all year -- he put the team on his back and led the Gophers to an 81-63 victory in the Big Ten regular-season finale at Williams Arena.
The Gophers set up a rematch in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament as they open as the No. 7 seed on Thursday against 10th-place Penn State in Indianapolis.
Mathieu led five Gophers in double figures with 16 points, six assists, three steals and three rebounds. After Penn State went on a 17-1 run to cut Minnesota's lead down to nine points with 8:37 left to play, Mathieu scored the Gophers' next two field goals and harassed the Nittany Lions' backcourt to take Penn State out of its offensive rhythm. The Gophers' lead never dipped below 10 points again as they came away with a win they desperately needed to keep any NCAA Tournament hopes afloat.
"We just had to go back out there and play how we started out the game, how we got the lead. That was with defending and taking good shots, not turning the ball over," Mathieu said. "We took care of the ball today better than we have lately and that's how we got out to such a big lead."
When asked what head coach Richard Pitino told the Gophers during Penn State's run, Mathieu said: "He was just like, 'We're fine. Everybody makes runs in this league. We've just got to keep going and we'll make our run in a second,' and we did."
Williams Arena has seen its share of big runs and blown leads this season. In the last two games on the raised court, Minnesota blew an early 11-point cushion in a loss to Illinois, then rode a roller coaster against Iowa, coming back from an 11-point deficit to lead by as much as 13 before hanging on for a six-point victory.
While the outcome on Sunday never felt in doubt, the fact that Minnesota responded to the Nittany Lions' surge and kept them at arm's length during the remainder of the game bodes well for a team that won't have much of a margin for error in the Big Ten Tournament.
"It's maturity and we're just getting better," Mathieu said of the Gophers' improvement down the stretch. "Being in those situations really helped us. You don't want to let a team come back and we did that a couple times this year. We just learned from it and kept learning from it. We're getting better every day, we work hard in practice and Coach just stays on us about keeping leads and not turning the ball over, and that's what we're doing."
However, with a 19-12 overall record and an 8-10 mark in conference games, they'll likely have to win at least one game -- against the Nittany Lions -- in Indianapolis to remain in the NCAA Tournament mix, if not more.
Minnesota swept the two games against the Nittany Lions this year, winning 68-65 at Penn State in the third Big Ten game of the season to go with Sunday's victory. But as the cliché goes, it's hard to beat a team three times in one season, which Pitino experienced first-hand last year. His Florida International squad lost to Middle Tennessee State twice in the regular season but rallied to knock off the Blue Raiders in the Sun Belt Conference semifinals.
"They were the cream of the crop team," Pitino recalled on Sunday. "They beat us at their place, (by) 18 or something; we were up 20 at our place, we lost at the buzzer. We played them in the semifinals; we were not losing. We were not losing the game. We were not losing. And they were a great team.
"We've got to understand Penn State's going to have that mentality. It's really, really hard to beat a team three times. (Patrick Chambers is) a great coach. They've got some very good players, prideful kids, so we understand that's going to be a war so we've got to get them ready to go."
The scoring balance that Minnesota displayed on Sunday will certainly help give them confidence if one of their big guns is misfiring down the stretch. Mo Walker scored 16 points on 80 percent shooting from the field (4-for-5) and the line (8-for-10). Austin Hollins hit double figures for the third straight game with 14 points on 5-for-9 shooting. Fellow senior Maverick Ahanmisi came off the bench in his final game at the Barn (NIT notwithstanding) and scored 13 points with a trio of 3-pointers.
And Andre Hollins - who, after all, still is the Gophers' leading scorer - chipped in 13 points despite early foul trouble. Considering he's averaged 18.7 points in 10 career postseason games (Big Ten, NIT and NCAA tourneys), adding an amped-up Hollins to a Gophers offense that's been running pretty smoothly of late could make for a dangerous No. 7 seed.
"It's deadly," Andre Hollins said of the team's scoring balance. "I'm not worried about our offense. I'm more worried about our defense. When we're playing well defensively, we're playing well offensively. So I think our focus is going to be really, we're not going to try to outscore people. We're going to try to defend and stop them."
Just don't expect the Gophers to bring out a new look against Penn State on Thursday. At this point in the season, Pitino noted, there aren't many new wrinkles to unveil.
"I don't think there's too many secrets anymore. I think we all kind of do what we do now," Pitino said.
Or, as Mathieu put it, "We play the same style every time, and that's as hard as possible. We're going to go out there Thursday and do the same thing."