The third game of the Big Ten tournament, featuring No. 10 Penn State and No. 7 Minnesota, showcased two teams playing with completely different levels of urgency.
For Penn State, its disappointing season would be over — save for the hopes of a lowly CBI bid, essentially a glorified practice — when its tournament run came to an end. A season that started with high hopes quickly became one that saw the Nittany Lions drop game after game that it could (should?) have won. Minnesota, on the other hand, had everything to play for. The Gophers are solidly on the NCAA tournament bubble, and an extended stay in the conference tournament might give it the boost it needs to get into the Big Dance.
With this being the case, the result of the game was an expected one. The final score, 63-56, was closer than last weekend’s 81-63 shellacking Minnesota handed to the visiting Nittany Lions on Sunday, but was still decisive enough to bring an end to senior Tim Frazier’s Big Ten career.
Similar to the last time the two teams met, Minnesota jumped out to an early first half lead. Penn State started the game shooting 2-for-18 from the floor, which allowed the higher-seeded Gophers to build a quick 9-0 lead four minutes in, and a 15-5 lead halfway through the first half.
“I think we just missed shots, but obviously Minnesota wants to speed you up with their defense,” Frazier said after the game. “I don’t know if we shot our shots fast, but it took us a while to knock down some shots.”
A series of three straight makes got Penn State back into the game, but the team couldn’t close the gap to less than five points, which was the amount that the Nittany Lions trailed at half. Despite having seven different players make the first seven shots, Penn State finished the half just 1-for-9 from behind the arc and 10-for-31 total.
The second half started out better offensively for Penn State, but still found the Gophers ballooning the lead to as much as 14 with 9 minutes left. A quick 10-4 run however, highlighted by 3-pointers by DJ Newbill and Geno Thorpe, cut the Minnesota lead to 8, forcing a Minnesota timeout.
“We just wanted to continue to fight. That’s one of our staples, to have a great attitude no matter what, continue to play as hard as we can,” Frazier said. “We continued to do that, and we cut it back it down to single digits and made it a single possession game.”
The Lions fought back to make it just a three point game with 45 seconds to go, forcing Minnesota’s coach Richard Pitino to call a timeout. Even though the opponent had missed 7 free throws in the second half, including two front ends of one-and-ones, head coach Pat Chambers opted to wait out the clock and play defense instead of fouling the offense to extend the game.
As it turns out, his decision would prove to be a costly one. After almost successfully trapping the Gophers in the backcourt, Minnesota broke the press and found Andre Hollins for a 3-pointer that broke the back of the upset-minded Lions.
Newbill would go on to miss a rushed 3-point attempt, and Minnesota made its final free throw to provide the final 63-56 margin. The Gophers never trailed in the game.
“You know, you just can’t give a Big Ten team a 12, 14-point lead. You just can’t do it,” said Chambers. “You hit the word right on the head; this has been the year of close. I’m really tired of getting close. We have to start getting over the hump and winning these games, and I don’t know if it’s a perception, I don’t know if it’s a mindset, I’m not sure what it is, but I’ve got to figure it out where we can come out and compete and know that we can win games, especially on this stage.”
Despite finishing the season with a losing record, Penn State is still eligible to receive a bid to play in the College Basketball Invitational. Chambers said after the game that the Nittany Lions would accept the bid if offered. Penn State will know its fate on Sunday night when the CBI bracket is released. There’s no glorified watch party for that, though.
The loss brought an end to Tim Frazier’s illustrious Big Ten career at Penn State. Frazier totaled 1,528 points and 544 assists during his five regular seasons in the Blue and White, and helped the Nittany Lions earn an NCAA tournament berth during the 2010-11 season. He led the team in scoring 42 times in the 133 games he played in and will go down as one of the most decorated and important players in the history of Penn State basketball.
While the loss of Frazier is a big one, Penn State should only lose him and seniors Alan Wisniewski and Zach Cooper next season. Team leading scorer DJ Newbill will return, as well as eight other players who averaged 10+ minutes per game.
But can Penn State be better next year without Frazier — better than holding out hope for a possible CBI bid? Only time will tell.