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Gophers win fifth straight, beat Michigan for first time since 2011

Minnesota Gophers guard Akeem Springs (0) shoots in the first half against the Michigan Wolverines at Williams Arena in Minneapolis on Sunday night. Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- Often, Richard Pitino hears from Gophers basketball fans who joke to the head coach that the thrilling and tight games his team can’t seem to avoid are taking a toll on their cardiac health.

“How do you think I feel?” Pitino quips back.

But as the Gophers gain experience in heart-racing finishes – perhaps at the expense of the health of maroon-and-gold-clad fans – they seem to be gaining poise. They earned yet another close win Sunday night in another game that lasted longer than it probably needed to.

Even Rick Pitino, the accomplished father of Richard and current Louisville coach, gasped and stressed watching at Williams Arena as the Gophers notched an 83-78 overtime win over Michigan.

The latest win in a streak that is now five straight victories was the Gophers’ best at home all season.

This Gophers team reached 20 wins faster than any at the U since the 1997 team. It also is the first Gophers team with five straight Big Ten wins since that Final Four-bound team.

By beating Michigan, Minnesota leapfrogged the Wolverines in the conference standings, now sharing the Big Ten’s fifth spot with Michigan State, both at 8-6 in conference games.

Sunday’s win was especially impressive for the way the Gophers responded in

overtime after blowing an eight-point lead in the final 2 minutes, 30 seconds of regulation.

Finally, it seems this squad that struggled early in the Big Ten season with closing out tight games is learning how to play in pressure-packed situations, an important attribute for a team with increasingly realistic NCAA tournament aspirations.

“They’re a very mentally tough group,” Richard Pitino said. “Maybe playing in those early (overtime games) has taught these guys. We’ve just found a way to tighten up those little things and make big free throws when we needed.”

These Gophers once blew leads in the second half on a regular basis, costing home games against Maryland, Wisconsin and Michigan State. But in Sunday’s win, the Gophers bounced back with aplomb from a deflating, overtime-forcing three-pointer that Michigan’s DJ Wilson hit with 1.8 seconds remaining in regulation.

“Our huddle was pretty dejected after that,” Pitino said. “That was good for us to respond.”

Four days after the Gophers needed 30 points from Nate Mason to squeak out a win over Indiana, the balanced scoring Richard Pitino hoped for returned. Five Gophers reached double digits in points, led by Jordan Murphy’s 16 points and 15 rebounds, yet another double-double for the streaking sophomore forward.

Murphy, Reggie Lynch (11 points, eight rebounds), and Eric Curry (12 points, five rebounds) dominated Michigan in the paint, helping the Gophers record a 19-0 advantage in second-chance points and a 44-31 rebounding advantage. Curry and Dupree McBrayer (15 points) helped the Gophers’ bench outscore Michigan’s reserves 27-7.

Minnesota’s win snapped its longest losing skid against a Big Ten foe, Sunday’s victory was the Gophers’ first over Michigan since 2011, a streak that spanned nine games.

Amazingly, five of the Gophers’ 14 Big Ten games have ventured to overtime, where Minnesota is now 3-2 with two consecutive wins. Four other conference games were decided by six points or fewer.

“Terrific win,” Pitino said. “I’m exhausted.”

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