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Penn State pulls away with a win over Gophers, 60-51

Coach Ben Johnson 'went with his gut' having four starters play 40 minutes

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament Penn State vs Minnesota
Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Payton Willis dribbles the ball while Penn State Nittany Lions guard Dallion Johnson (23) defends on Wednesday, March 9, 2022, in the first half at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today Sports
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Gophers men’s basketball coach Ben Johnson looked to his bench during the first half of the Big Ten Tournament first-round game against Penn State on Wednesday.

Someone with Minnesota said their starting five — Payton Willis, Jamison Battle, Eric Curry, Sean Sutherlin and Luke Loewe — were rolling and suggested leaving them in the game.

“I got to go with my gut and go with my guys,” Johnson told Big Ten Network at halftime at Gainsbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament Penn State vs Minnesota
Minnesota Golden Gophers forward Eric Curry (1) shoots the ball while Penn State Nittany Lions forward John Harrar (21) defends Wednesday, March 9, 2022, in the first half at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today Sports

The 14th-seeded Gophers went with only their starting five for more than 36 minutes, but the Nittany Lions (13-16) pulled away for a 60-51 win. Penn State, a 3.5-point favorite Wednesday, will face No. 6 Ohio State on Thursday.

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

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Throughout the season, Johnson has had to navigate a short bench, with three players — Battle, Willis and Loewe — each playing more than 34 minutes a game and only six going more than 20 per game.

Then before the tourney opener, guard EJ Stephens had 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.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament Penn State vs Minnesota
Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Sean Sutherlin (24) shoots the ball Wednesday, March 9, 2022, while Penn State Nittany Lions guard Myles Dread (2) defends in the first half at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today Sports

Midway through the second half, Stephens told Johnson he was available to play, and he didn’t come into the game until the starters had each played 36 minutes apiece. It was short-lived as Stephens subbed out one minute later.

The Gophers wouldn’t have been the only team to play with five players this season, Per Big Ten Network, IUPUI only had five players available for their 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. 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. PSU shot nearly 60 percent in the second half.

The Gophers split the regular-season series with the Nittany Lions, winning 76-70 Feb. 12 at Williams Arena and losing 67-46 in State College, Pa., on Feb. 17.

The Gophers fell to 4-1 all-time against the Nittany Lions in Big Ten Tournament.

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