College Basketball: Gophers end skid with win over Indiana
By Marcus R. Fuller, St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota and Indiana still have a long way to go before the NCAA tournament selection committee decides their postseason fates.
But don’t tell them that.
Both teams battled Saturday like an at-large bid was on the line, but the Gophers came out on top, ending their three-game losing streak with a 66-60 victory in front of a sellout crowd at Williams Arena.
It was as close to a must-win game that Minnesota (16-8, 5-6 Big Ten) has had all season, with a tough road test coming up Thursday at Wisconsin.
The Gophers were fortunate to still be in most NCAA tournament bracket projections this week, if barely, after losing Wednesday for the fourth time in five games in triple overtime at Purdue.
The Hoosiers (14-9, 4-6), who were upset last year in Minneapolis as the No. 1 team in the country, were solidly on the bubble but on the outside looking in on most mock brackets.
“Coach (Richard Pitino) said earlier this week that it wasn’t all about the NCAA tournament,” said junior center Mo Walker, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds. “He said don’t really put too much pressure on yourself and that the NCAA tournament will come. We have a lot of opportunities this season. We were close. We finally closed it out.”
Pitino, who had his hall of fame father Rick in attendance, praised his team’s defense as the key to Saturday’s win.
Minnesota scored 20 points off 16 turnovers.
Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer, was held to 14 points on 5-for-16 shooting from the field, including just four points on 2-for-9 shooting in the second half.
Gophers point guard DeAndre Mathieu outplayed Ferrell with 16 points and five assists. His slicing layup and two free throws after a clutch defensive rebound in the waning seconds sealed it.
Mathieu missed a similar shot that would have been the game-winner against Northwestern last week. He also struggled in overtime at Purdue.
“It just shows what type of heart (he has),” Pitino said. “He’s 5-9, 160, but he believes he’s about 6-8, 230.”
Mathieu, whose family attended one of his Minnesota games for the first time Saturday, committed just one turnover — and it made a difference in the outcome. The junior college transfer had committed 32 turnovers combined in the team’s six Big Ten losses, including nine against Nebraska and seven against Purdue.
“I have the ultimate pressure on myself,” Mathieu said. “That’s why sometimes you probably see me just with my head like I’m out of it. Because it’s me getting angry at myself because I feel like I should be the best player on the floor all the time.”
The Gophers had leading scorer Andre Hollins back for the second straight game coming off two missed games because of an ankle injury.
Hollins, who had 10 points, took some of the pressure off Mathieu to handle the ball and score on the perimeter.
Minnesota had a starting lineup change with Joey King replacing Oto Osenieks at power forward. The thought was that King would bring more toughness and help his team on the defensive boards after Minnesota gave up 23 second-chance points in the loss at Purdue.
But King wasn’t much of a spark early.
Instead, the lift came — again — from Walker. The 6-foot-10 junior followed up his 17-point performance against the Boilermakers with eight points in the first half.
Starting center Elliott Eliason got in foul trouble battling Indiana’s star freshman Noah Vonleh, who had his Big Ten-leading 10th double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Vonleh muscled in a layup with just less than six minutes left to give Indiana a 56-53 advantage.
The Hoosiers grabbed the lead back after answering a furious rally by the home team.
The Barn crowd erupted after senior Malik Smith hit a three-pointer off the glass to give the Gophers a four-point lead near the nine-minute mark in the second half.
Smith looked like he was shooting in a game of H-O-R-S-E, capping a 13-1 run after Indiana had built an eight-point lead.
The Gophers weren’t done coming from behind, though. Austin Hollins’ three-pointer started a 7-0 run that gave his team a 60-56 lead after Eliason’s basket with 3:16 remaining.
Minnesota had lost three straight games by a combined eight points, including a road setback at Nebraska and home defeat by Northwestern. So the crowd knew the game was far from over.
But Pitino’s team found a way to finish this time.
“They were so focused on getting a win,” he said. “You could tell even in practice.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.