Gophers look to finish off three-game sweep

Head coach Richard Pitino and the Gophers have already beaten Penn State twice this year, including in Sunday's regular-season finale at Williams Arena.

Brad Rempel/Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — In Richard Pitino’s lone season as the head coach at Florida International last year, his team just couldn’t get past Middle Tennessee in the regular season.

Pitino’s Panthers dropped their first game against their conference foes by 17 points in a road loss in late December. In a rematch with Middle Tennessee one month later, FIU watched a 17-point halftime lead disappear before losing on a buzzer beater.

So when Florida International had a third date with the Blue Raiders in the Sun Belt tournament, the Panthers were not about to be denied a third time.

"We were not losing the game," said Pitino, now the head coach at Minnesota.

Sure enough, Florida International pulled off a win over Middle Tennessee in the semifinals of the conference tournament. Though the Panthers lost in the Sun Belt championship, the semifinal win was a testament to just how hard it is for any team to beat an opponent three times in one season.

That’s the task Pitino’s Gophers are now faced with as they’ll open the Big Ten tournament Thursday with a game against Penn State — a team Minnesota has already topped twice, including Sunday’s regular-season finale. The Gophers also overcame a five-point halftime deficit to top the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley back in early January.

In order to enjoy an extended stay in Indianapolis, Minnesota will have to make it 3-0 against Penn State.

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"It’s tough to beat a team so many times in a row," said Gophers center Mo Walker, who scored 16 points in Sunday’s win. "We got them at their spot, and now we got them at home. So it’s going to be challenging to get them a third time at the Big Ten tournament. They’re going to scout us a little better. They’re going to prepare for us a little better. We’ve just got to take this week and get even better offensively and defensively and prepare for the changes that they might make."

Will the third time be the charm for Penn State? Minnesota hopes not. In fact, its NCAA tournament hopes may very well depend on it. The Gophers couldn’t afford to lose to the Nittany Lions this past Sunday at home, and they’ll need at least one win in the Big Ten tournament — perhaps more — to solidify a spot in the NCAA tournament.

Pitino was asked before Sunday’s win if he’d have the Gophers in the tournament if he were on the selection committee. Always forthright, Pitino’s answer was honest.

"Right now? No," he said.

Minnesota topped Penn State in convincing fashion Sunday, jumping out to an early lead before cruising to an 81-63 victory. Walker and point guard DeAndre Mathieu both had 16 points, while Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins added 14 and 13, respectively. Penn State’s D.J. Newbill had a big game for the Nittany Lions, dropping a game-high 24 points. Minnesota will need to slow down Newbill and guard Tim Frazier, who chipped in 14 in the loss, in order to make it a threepeat over PSU.

Both teams are in the same boat of having just played the other only four days before Thursday’s opening round of the tournament. It’s not a ton of time to make adjustments, but Pitino doesn’t anticipating adding any big wrinkles to the playbook. At this point in the season, the Gophers are who they are.

"I don’t think there’s too many secrets anymore," he said. "I think we all kind of do what we do now. I put in a lot of stuff early. I don’t put in a lot of new stuff anymore, just like they do. You tinker with things, certainly. That’s a really good coach in that other locker room, so we know that’s going to be a really tough game on Thursday."

If Minnesota does get past Penn State for a third time, the Gophers will face rival Wisconsin in the second round. Each of those teams won their home games in this year’s border battle, but a potential third matchup would be decided on a neutral court.

Pitino and his team aren’t looking that far ahead, but a win against the 12th-ranked Badgers could all but lock up a trip to the big dance for the Gophers. Before that can happen, Minnesota must beat an opponent three times in one season. Iowa topped Northwestern three times last year, including the first round of the Big Ten tournament. The Gophers hope to do the same Thursday.

"It’s tough to beat a team three times in a row," said Austin Hollins. "We’ve just got to go out there, stick to the scouting report, and we’ve got to defend. That’s going to be huge."

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