Minnesota 65, Penn State 60
MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—Lawrence McKenzie scored 19 points, including five 3-pointers, to lead Minnesota past Penn State 65-60 on Saturday afternoon in a matchup of two of the Big Ten’s worst teams.
Jonathan Williams posted season highs in points (13) and rebounds (14) in a strong inside effort by the sophomore to complement suddenly sharp outside shooting by the Gophers (8-13, 2-5). They made a season-best 10 shots from 3-point range in 24 attempts.
It didn’t hurt that the opponent was the defenseless Nittany Lions (10-10, 1-6), who fell into a last-place tie in the conference with idle Northwestern. Minnesota is one spot ahead.
Geary Claxton had 20 points and 12 rebounds, Jamelle Cornley added 14 points, and Danny Morrissey chipped in 10 points. But Penn State shot only 35.2 percent from the field, including 8-for-29 in the second half.
The Nittany Lions were within 53-52, but after the Gophers forced an off-the-mark shot McKenzie followed with another swish from behind the arc to build a four-point lead with less than five minutes left. Kevin Payton, who had 12 points and eight assists, sealed it near the one-minute mark with a 3-pointer of his own that made it 61-55 Minnesota.
There is probably no better Big Ten team to work on weaknesses against than Penn State, but the Nittany Lions were likely thinking the same thing about their opponent.
Both schools carried five-game losing streaks into this one after winning their conference openers, and the depleted Gophers were held under 50 points four times during that drought—reaching a mere 52 points against Illinois in the other one.
Center Spencer Tollackson, who missed his fifth straight game Saturday with a broken hand, has been sorely missed—with McKenzie, Dan Coleman and occasionally Jamal Abu-Shamala the only others capable of being reliable scorers.
Penn State’s problems have been on defense. The Nittany Lions, who haven’t finished with a winning record since they reached the NCAA tournament’s regional semifinals in the 2000-01 season, surrendered 84, 77, 91 and 79 points over their past four games.
They controlled most of the first half and led 29-21 with about seven minutes left before the break, but then their shots stopped falling in a slump that extended well past the intermission.
Minnesota closed the half with a 14-4 run, punctuated by McKenzie’s long 3-pointer from the wing with 28 seconds remaining to make it 35-33. After the players went downstairs to the locker rooms, one Gophers fan sitting near the court yelled, “We won the first half!”
Interim coach Jim Molinari, realizing the limitations of his roster, has tried to emphasize incremental progress with his senior-less squad. A halftime lead was certainly a good start, and for once Minnesota was able to extend some momentum over more than a few minutes.