Sandell: Gophers respond the way they needed to in rout of Penn State
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MINNEAPOLIS -- There were essentially two basic ways the Gophers could have responded in their first game since stunning No. 1 Indiana on Tuesday in a potentially season-saving victory.
Option No. 1 was that they would be rejuvenated by the much-needed momentum boost, get past lowly Penn State and climb to within two games of securing their first winning Big Ten record of the Tubby Smith era.
The second, and less favorable possibility was the Gophers would revert back to their pre-Indiana wayward identity and unravel in a game in which they were 16-point favorites.
Luckily for the Gophers and their suddenly brightened future prospects, they took the first option on Saturday.
Riding the emotions garnered from Senior Day at Williams Arena, the Gophers (20-9, 8-8) thrived from the get-go en route to dominating Penn State, 73-44, for their most one-sided Big Ten victory of the season.
Saturday's game was a crucial test, and one Smith was admittedly concerned about how it would transpire.
Could the Gophers keep a hold on the aggressive and focused style of play that carried them to a slump-busting win against the Hoosiers?
They responded in resounding matter-of-fact fashion.
Penn State, despite also coming off an impressive court-storming victory against Michigan, proved to be not much of an obstacle. The Gophers opened a 16-0 lead before the Nittany Lions were able to tally their first points of the afternoon, coming more than 11 minutes into the game.
The Gophers have had the look of a different team in their two games since consecutive blowout losses to Iowa and Ohio State.
"We've really sort of recommitted ourselves to playing better and it is showing in our performance," Smith said.
For 33 of the game's 40 minutes, the Gophers held a double-digit lead, never letting Penn State show any signs of fighting back. It started with a strong defensive effort that was a carryover from how they kept Indiana in-check down the stretch. It was a level of prowess on the defensive end that had been sorely missing during the Gophers stretch of eight losses in 11 games.
"I think coming out with the defensive intensity we've had in the last two games is huge," junior guard Austin Hollins said. "We're getting back to the things that we do well."
Penn State's 44 points were the fewest allowed by the Gophers this season, and their lowest total in a Big Ten game since 2010, when Purdue managed to score just 42 on them.
It was only fitting that the Gophers' seniors grabbed the spotlight. Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe -- the longest tenured players on the "U" roster -- along with Julian Welch and Andre Ingram, combined to score 37 points.
While the sample size is only two games, Mbakwe has been the difference maker in the Gophers' recent resurgence. As he was against Indiana, the senior big man was key in the Gophers' setting a tone offensively. A 13-point, 13-rebound performance gave him his 24th career double-double, serving as a welcomed punctuation mark on a memorable day.
As he left Williams Arena after taking dozens of pictures with friends and family, Mbakwe stopped for one last photo at center court. He bent down and kissed the large maroon and gold "M" logo on the court he has called home for the last four years.
"It was crazy," Mbakwe said of his final home game. "There were a lot of emotions, especially since it's been up and down for me throughout my career here. It was great to see the crowd and the ovation they gave us. I'm going to remember that for a long time."
While Mbakwe took the lead in both scoring and rebounding, it was Williams who compiled the signature highlight of the game. In a testament to the fact that his previously injured shoulder has healed, Williams delivered a dunk that left his teammates labeling it as the best they've ever seen from the acrobatic forward.
Receiving the lob pass from Welch, Williams, with his feet slightly tucked up behind him, brought his left hand all the way around for a thundering play to end the first half.
Even Smith, who is usually one to refrain from commenting on dunks, was astounded.
"I kind of saw it from a far, but it was amazing that he was able to catch the ball, because it was a bad pass," Smith said. "Rodney is spectacular when it comes to that type of stuff. He just has another gear that most athletes don't have."
There is a palpable feeling of confidence surrounding the Gophers once again. But as this season and recent years have made clear, momentum can fade as quickly as it was found.
With two games remaining before the Big Ten tournament, it is essential for the fluctuating Gophers to continue to harness their late-season surge. Road trips to Nebraska and Purdue provide a challenging, but highly realistic opportunity to get to 10 wins in the Big Ten -- something a Tubby Smith-led team has not done.
While the debate had been placed on the back-burner after the Indiana defeat, the Gophers have practically assured themselves of an NCAA tournament bid by trouncing Penn State to reach the 20-win threshold. Smith is hesitant to talk about the tourney, but admits his team seems headed firmly in that direction.
"I think we've made a good case for ourselves. I'll put it that way," Smith said.