INDIANAPOLIS — Grinding through 14 tight games out of a 20-game Big Ten schedule came with a bonus for Penn State.
When the Nittany Lions faced another close game in their Big Ten tournament opener against Minnesota, they knew how to handle it.
Faced with protecting a three-point lead over the final eight minutes of their 60-51 win over the Golden Gophers, the Nittany Lions proved more than up to the task.
Jalen Pickett’s 3-pointer with 6:26 left gave Penn State a seven-point lead and the Nittany Lions’ defense did the rest, holding Minnesota to 2-for-12 shooting over the last eight minutes to close out the Gophers Wednesday night at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
“When we do what we can control, we’re really good defensively,” Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry said. “We make people take tough shots, we give them one shot and we go and rebound it, and our guys have done that all season. They just dig in deeper and deeper and as the game goes on, you just keep wearing on people, wearing on people, wearing on people and, hopefully, you’re taking their legs.”
The Nittany Lions (13-16) did exactly that to the Golden Gophers (13-17) in the second half, turning around a game that Minnesota led by four at the break. Minnesota had to play without guard E.J. Stephens for all but one minute after the senior suffered a migraine, leaving the Gophers with no substitutions.
Gradually, Minnesota wore down from its lack of depth, and Penn State took full advantage. Pickett scored 13 of his game-high 22 points in the second half, and he and John Harrar combined for 12 second-half rebounds, one more than Minnesota managed in the final 20 minutes.
“We knew we wanted to tire Payton Willis down, and those guys play a lot of minutes,” Pickett said. “So we knew as the game goes on, we just tried to keep following our game plan.”
Part of that proved to be forcing the Gophers into looks they didn’t want. Minnesota shot 9-for-28 in the second half and just 2-for-11 from behind the arc in the final 20 minutes. While the Gophers got plenty of open looks, only Jameson Battle (19 points) was able to cash in on what the Nittany Lions were willing to give him.
“We were getting good looks; I would say it just wasn’t falling for us,” said Minnesota forward Eric Curry, who scored 10 points but managed just four in the second half. “I mean, Coach (Ben Johnson) believed in us, he kept telling us to keep shooting those shots. They just weren’t falling for us.”
While the Gophers left Indianapolis befuddled, the Nittany Lions weren’t surprised. In fact, Shrewsberry had planned it that way, borrowing a tactic from his former boss, ex-Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
“(He) used to always say that you just take away what they want to do best, you just squeeze the life out of people,” Shrewsberry said. “Now the one time they get that open 3, they haven’t seen it all game and it usually doesn’t go in because they’re not getting that shot that they normally get every single time.
“That’s what our guys are doing. They’re just taking away A and making you go to B, and then we’re guarding B as tough as possible and making you go to C. Now you’re not working on C; that’s a shot you’ve never practiced in your life. Now we’re contesting that shot, we’re challenging that shot, we’re hitting people on the glass and then we’re going down the other end.”
And each time, Penn State seemed to know exactly what to do, using the lessons of a challenging Big Ten season to make the necessary plays at the end. In the process, the Nittany Lions won their first Big Ten tournament game for the fourth straight year and earned a second-round matchup with No. 6 seed Ohio State at approximately 9:15 p.m. Thursday.
“We’ve been in this spot before and we’ve got a lot of seniors, so we felt really comfortable and we were connected,” Pickett said. “We knew what we needed to do every time down the floor on offense and defense.”