Just when you thought you were out...Penn State basketball pulled you back in with their impressive win over Illinois, which got them back on the radar of the Internet’s bracketologists. Now, they had to follow that up in an absolute must-win game at Minnesota, a team that had been struggling the entire Big Ten slate, with only one conference win and sitting squarely in the basement of the conference.
Unfortunately, this same Minnesota team just happened to be returning a key missing piece to their offensive puzzle, in 6’11” big man Dawson Garcia, the team’s leading scorer at nearly 15 points and six rebounds per game, and we all know how much of an adventure this team has had handling opposing big men this season.
Both teams ripped the nets in the first half, which kept the game tight but with PSU holding onto a lead (except for a brief moment where the Gophers led by a point). Towards the end of the half though, it was Penn State’s three-point shooting (the Lions shot 8-for-15 from downtown in the first half) and Garcia having to sit out the last 4-5 minutes of the half in foul trouble that helped PSU pull away and take a ten-point lead to the locker room.
The start of the second half seemed like deja-vu from prior losses, with Garcia back in the game, the Gopher offense got humming again, while the Lions went on one of their patented second half-opening cold streaks, as the Lions failed to put up even three-foot bunnies (PSU started out missing on their first 11 shots from the floor). This led to PSU’s halftime advantage completely evaporating into a two-point Minnesota lead.
The Lions finally woke up, going on an 11-0 scoring run over the next three minutes to push their lead back to nine, as the Gophers caught the Lions’ cold stretch from the floor. Minnesota’s Pharrel Payne was not happy with the way things were going, and he did something about it, by coming off the bench to provide some scoring, rebounding, and assist-making (Payne would finish with 18 points, ten rebounds, and six assists) to get the Gophers back in the game and cut the PSU lead to three points with less than four-and-a-half minutes left.
Jalen Pickett however, was more than willing to step up to the challenge when the going got tough, making a critical layup and jumper on back-to-back possessions, and Andrew Funk delivered the dagger with a three-pointer with 1:04 left to put PSU up by eight. It wasn’t easy (it never really is with Penn State Basketball), but the Shrews Crew’s NCAA Tournament hopes remain intact for at least another few days, thanks to earning their first road win since early December.
Player of the Game - Jalen Pickett (32 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists)
Remember when we thought during the four-game losing skid that opposing teams were starting to figure out how to slow down Mr. Pickett? Jalen followed up his historic 41-point performance against Illinois with his second-highest career scoring game, flirting with a double-double in the process. If you watched this game, you could tell he was playing like a guy who knew what the stakes were and absolutely willed this team to victory.
- Not Another Rando Making Threes - Coming into tonight’s game, Minnesota’s Joshua Ola-Joseph had made only four three-pointers the entire season. He knocked down back-to-back treys in the the game’s first few minutes, leading myself and my fellow BSD colleagues lamenting in our Slack channel about how he might be the next rando to go off on PSU. Thankfully, he misfired on his third and final attempts and would only score another five points the rest of the way, still finishing with a respectable 11 points, but not the 25-30 point performance it seemed like he might have.
- Getting It Done At The Line - This was a rare road game where Penn State was able to get enough foul calls in their favor to get a decent number of chances at the free throw line, making ten of their 13 attempts. Minnesota meanwhile, showed why they are the worst free-throw shooting team according to KenPom, making only 9 of their 15 attempts, including missing several important shots in the final couple of minutes that could have really made this one a nail-biting finish.
- “1-0” - It sure sounds like Micah Shrewsberry has been reaching out to James Franklin a good amount lately, as watching Pickett’s postgame floor interview on BTN, you heard him mention the importance of going “1-0” and focusing on one game at a time. Every remaining game ahead of them at the moment is a potential NCAA NET Quad 1 win, which would seriously help pad the Lions’ NCAA Tournament resume. A 3-1 finish to the regular season would put them in excellent position where a win or two in the Big Ten Tourna
Penn State (16-11, 7-9) will hit the road once again, as they take on a cratering Ohio State (11-15, 3-12) in the two teams’ lone meeting of the regular season. Tip-off will be Thursday, February 23rd at 6:30 PM EST on FS1.