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Men's basketball: Mathieu lifts Gophers over Penn State

USA TODAY Sports Penn State’s John Johnson drives around Minnesota forward Joey King during the first half Wednesday at Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, Pa.

By Marcus R. Fuller

St. Paul Pioneer Press

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Richard Pitino was coaching in his first Big Ten road game Wednesday against Penn State, so he didn’t know what to expect.

Neither did Gophers starting point guard DeAndre Mathieu, who was playing in his first Big Ten road game.

The inexperience showed when Mathieu combined with fellow newcomer Malik Smith to shoot 0 for 11 from the field in the first half.

Pitino called out Mathieu at halftime because he knew his junior floor leader could respond to criticism. The pep talk worked as Mathieu scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half in a 68-65 victory over the Nittany Lions at Bryce Jordan Center.

Smith, who scored all of his points by going 6 for 6 from the foul line in the second half, made four straight free throws in the final 24.9 seconds to help Pitino’s team escape what would have been another damaging loss after dropping the Big Ten opener against Michigan.

Minnesota (13-3, 2-1) now has momentum with two straight wins going into a tough four-game stretch against the top teams in the Big Ten, starting Saturday at Michigan State.

“Coach got into me at halftime,” Mathieu said. “He said I wasn’t playing hard enough, and my body language was not what he wanted it to be. So I had to change my attitude and play harder in the second half.”

Mathieu, who was losing the point guard battle to Penn State’s Tim Frazier for most of the game, was aggressive penetrating to the basket in the first half. But the 5-foot-9 junior college transfer wasn’t getting any foul calls.

Frazier, who had 13 of his 20 points and five of his eight assists in the first half, was taking control of the game.

Pitino was more concerned with Mathieu’s slow start than the struggles of senior captain Austin Hollins, who finished with just four points on 1-for-4 shooting.

“He was getting very, very frustrated. You could see it,” Pitino said of Mathieu. “We need him. It’s not just Andre (Hollins) and Austin Hollins. DeAndre is a really good player in this league as well. So I think he kind of figured it out in the second half. He was mentally more focused and made some big plays down the stretch.”

Frazier missed last season with an Achilles’ injury, but Mathieu knew how tough the senior former All-Big Ten player was going to be to match. But he was up for the challenge.

“I’m trying to go out every night against the best,” Mathieu said. “Some of the best point guards in the country are in the Big Ten. I’m trying to prove I belong here and that I’m good enough to play in the Big Ten.”

Mathieu said Hollins encouraged him to stay positive in the second half. The senior guard was in foul trouble most of the game but picked up a key steal with less than two minutes left.

Hollins missed the layup off the turnover, but Mathieu was there to score on the offensive putback to give the Gophers a 60-59 lead with 1:45 remaining. He had scored 10 of Minnesota’s past 13 points at that point.

Penn State’s Ross Travis, who is from Chaska, Minn., hit one of two free throws to tie the score. But Frazier picked up his fifth foul while grabbing Oto Osenieks at midcourt with 58 seconds left.

Osenieks and Smith then hit five of the next six free throws to seal the win.

Junior center Elliott Eliason, who had 11 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks, said this was a win the Gophers had to have before taking on the Big Ten-leading Spartans.

“We have three really tough games coming up at Michigan State, at home against Ohio State, and then at Iowa,” he said. “That’s a huge stretch for us, so we really have to iron some things out.”