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Penn State Men’s Basketball Squanders Huge Lead, Falls 75-70 to Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS — For Penn State men’s basketball coach Mike Rhoades the most frustrating thing about the Nittany Lions’ 75-70 loss to Minnesota on Saturday at Williams Arena was just about everything.

“Even though we made a bunch of threes in the first half, I think it gave us a little bit of a false sense of security,” Rhoades said, Penn State having gone 9-for-13 from beyond the arc in the opening 20 minutes. “They took some momentum into halftime with them and then got going. We just stood around that whole second half. We’ve done a great job all year not turning the ball over and we just we gave them the ball and then they got themselves back into it … I liked how we were ready to play today. But disappointing second half meltdown.”

On the surface, losing by five points to a feisty Minnesota team on the Gophers’ senior day is not a particularly noteworthy occurrence in its own right in an often unforgiving Big Ten. However, if you add in the Nittany Lions’ 23-point lead with 5:04 left to go in the first half, it becomes a much more bitter pill for Rhoades and his program to swallow. The score read 41-18, and then 42-30 at the half and then 75-70 as the buzzer sounded. In total, from the moment Penn State went up 23 points, Minnesota went on a 56-29 run which would encompass the remainder of the game.

“We had no pace getting the ball in bounds,” Rhoades added. “We had no pace getting it up to court. We had no pace getting into our offense, and then what happens is the defense can really push you out and cut the clock down. We didn’t have enough penetrating plays. I thought we did in the first half, even though we had threes, we had some really good threes because we got downhill and shared the ball.”

In some respects, it wasn’t a shock that Penn State — which entered Saturday’s game outside the Top 200 in three-point shooting percentage — was unable to maintain its stroke from beyond the arc. It also wasn’t terribly surprising that the Nittany Lions had their hands full on the interior or that a flu bug running through the locker room had left the likes of the usually reliable D’Marco Dunn a little worse for wear.

But for a team which has taken pride in ball security and toughness, Penn State displayed little of either as the game tightened. The Nittany Lions turned the ball over 17 times over the course of the game — 11 of those coming in the second half — accounting for 26 Minnesota points. Add in a 37.9% second half shooting clip and it’s the perfect recipe for a Minnesota comeback as the Gophers shot 57.7% from the floor and turned ball over just four times in the final 20 minutes of play. As for toughness, that is a bit harder to quantify, but for a team that has taken pride in never going down for the count, the Nittany Lions offered little in the way of counterpunches in the final minutes. It was a toothless offense after taking such a large lead, making just four baskets from the 12:14 mark down until there were 35 seconds to go.

“We just fought it too much,” Rhoades said of his team trying to make plays on a more individual level. Penn State was led by Puff Johnson’s 19 points while Ace Baldwin Jr. and Qudus Wahab flanked him with 17 and 11 points respectively. “We’re trying to make dribble moves through crowds. I know how bad we want to win … and they have freedom to go make plays, but with freedom comes great responsibility and that responsibility is not to turn the ball over.

“We’ll take a couple of days off this week and get our bodies right and our minds right,” Rhoades said. “And you know, one more game at home and then go play the tournament. We’ll see what happens.”

For Rhoades and company, there is something to be said for where the Nittany Lions are at (14-16, 8-11). Penn State stands with a reasonable chance of winning a ninth Big Ten regular season contest this year, a mark which has been bettered just four times since Penn State joined the conference in the early 90s. In a strange way, Rhoades has piloted the Nittany Lions through a fairly remarkable year that is only a few bounces, officiating decisions and a tad more luck and/or skill away from being a legitimate NCAA Tournament team.

At the same time, the Nittany Lions have their warts and are perhaps exactly what their record — and Saturday’s performance — suggests: a work in progress, capable of very good things and prone to bad ones as well. All the same, there’s something to be said for the state of Penn State men’s basketball if a season like this is the new floor for a program that has known some seriously low lows. Not what Rhoades will want to hear on his flight back to State College from an unusually balmy Minnesota, but something he’ll come back around to at some point.

“The one thing is, everybody thought they’d just be kicking us up and down the street this year with all this new staff, new team and all that,” Rhoades said. “And that’s not the case.”

And even on the heels of one of the more painful losses of his tenure, he’s not wrong.