Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Gophers have four starters play 40 minutes in 60-51 loss to Penn State

Gophers men’s basketball coach Ben Johnson looked to his bench to make his first substitutions during the first half of the Big Ten Tournament first-round game against Penn State on Wednesday. He didn’t make a move.

The candidates to enter the game said the starting five — Payton Willis, Jamison Battle, Eric Curry, Sean Sutherlin and Luke Loewe — were rolling and suggested the first-year head coach leave them in the game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

“One of those was a senior Charlie Daniels, who is Eric’s probably biggest fan,” Johnson recalled postgame. “Daniels said, ‘Coach, naw, let them ride it out,’ and it went all the way down the line of guys, knowing that we were playing well and they wanted those guys to keep fighting.

“That is what our team has been all year,” Johnson said. “I think they are about the right stuff and they are the true definition of a team, so it hurts to end. We all wish we had one more day, but I’m thankful for these guys for allowing me and my staff to coach them all year. They have been unbelievable.”

The 14th-seeded Gophers went with four starters for all 40 minutes and Curry played 39, but the Nittany Lions pulled away for a 60-51 win. Penn State (13-16), a 3.5-point favorite, got 18 bench points to Minnesota’s zero and will face No. 6 Ohio State on Thursday.

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Head coach Ben Johnson of the Minnesota Gophers talks with an official during the second half against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on March 09, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

Johnson’s initial season at his alma mater finished at 13-17, including 4-16 in the Big Ten regular season.

Entire the year, Johnson had to navigate a very short bench, with three starters — Battle, Willis and Loewe — each playing more than 34 minutes per game and only six guys playing more than 20 a game.

“I don’t let the minutes factor in because it’s do-or-die at this point,” said Battle, who had a team-high 19 points. “… If you are playing 40 minutes or you are playing zero minutes, you are going to go out there and fight. … Were the minutes a factor? Maybe, but I feel like the five guys who really played the whole game were so locked in and so connected, we didn’t really look at it.”

Roughly an hour before tipoff, guard EJ Stephens came down with a migraine headache and didn’t start. Sutherlin stepped in for his fourth start of the year, and it created the U’s fifth different starting lineup this season.

Midway through the second half, Stephens told Johnson he was able to play, and he only came in with less than four minutes remaining. Each starter had played 36 all minutes to that point, but the change was short-lived as Stephens subbed out less than a minute later and Curry came back in.

Curry fought through three multiple season-ending injuries to finish his sixth season on his own terms; he did that Wednesday. The Big Ten Sportsmanship Award honoree said he tried to avoid eye contact with Johnson when players were asked if they needed a break in the second half.

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“I have nothing to be sad about,” he said. “I love all these guys, and we competed. I wouldn’t change a decision for nothing in the world. I love all these guys, and I loved playing with them all this year. Credit to those guys and credit to coach Johnson for that.”

The Gophers wouldn’t have been the only team to play only five players this season; per Big Ten Network, IUPUI only had five players available for its game against Oakland in the Horizon League tournament on March 1.

The Gophers held the Nittany Lions without a basket for 5 minutes and 14 seconds and took a 22-15 lead in the first half. Among those starters (and finishers), four had at least six or eight points in the first half.

Minnesota was scrappy defensively, holding the Nittany Lions to 32 percent shooting in the first half. Then PSU shot nearly 60 percent in the second half.

The Gophers split the regular-season series with the Nittany Lions, winning 76-70 on Feb. 12 at Williams Arena and losing 67-46 on Feb. 17 in State College, Pa. Minnesota fell to 4-1 all-time against the Nittany Lions in Big Ten Tournament.

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