The Nittany Lions won four of their final six games to finish in a four-way tie for fourth place.
Battle had 22 points and two free throws with 10.5 seconds left Sunday to help Penn State hang on and beat Minnesota 66-63, the fifth straight loss for the Gophers and the first such streak in Tubby Smith’s 21-year career as a head coach.
“This is our opportunity to go and do some special things,” Battle said. “So we want to get hot, and we’re going to see what happens.”
Penn State ended an eight-game losing streak at Williams Arena and beat Minnesota twice in the same season for the first time ever. Battle became only the third player in Division I history, joining Danny Ferry of Duke and Grevis Vasquez of Maryland, to reach the combination of 2,000 points, 600 rebounds and 500 assists for his career.
The Nittany Lions have their second-best Big Ten record in coach Ed DeChellis’s eight seasons, short of the 2009 team that won 27 games and the NIT championship. The momentum from that postseason run two years ago hasn’t carried over, despite the do-it-all talent and come-through-in-the-clutch ability the diminutive Battle brings.
“I’ve told them for several weeks now: ‘This is your team. This is your time,”’ DeChellis said, recounting his message to the seniors.
Jeff Brooks had 20 points and seven rebounds for the Nittany Lions (16-13, 9-9), who will be the No. 6 seed and play Indiana in the conference tournament next week.
“We’d like to have one or two back, but I’m sure so would everybody else,” DeChellis said, lamenting a three-point loss at No. 1 Ohio State and a one-point defeat at No. 6 Purdue in a five-day span in January.
Blake Hoffarber’s 17 points weren’t enough for the Gophers (17-13, 6-12), who have their worst Big Ten record in four seasons under Smith. They finished ninth and will play Northwestern in the first round next week, with Smith’s streak of 17 straight 20-win seasons — the longest active run at college basketball’s top level — is in trouble.
Asked if this team is capable of last year’s long run in the Big Ten tournament, Smith sounded pessimistic, again lamenting the mistakes of inexperience, even though he has three juniors and a senior in the eight-man rotation.
“The guys that are veteran players have got to give us more. They’ve got to step up and play extraordinarily,” Smith said.
Trevor Mbakwe had 10 points and 14 rebounds and Rodney Williams had the best Big Ten game of his career with 14 points, five rebounds, three steals and two blocks, but the Gophers fell to 2-9 since point guard Al Nolen got hurt.
The Gophers used several backdoor cuts to get open for dunks and layups, but they again had trouble getting the ball in the post or creating shots on the perimeter. One frustrated fan yelled from her seat at one point in the second half, “Quit standing still!”
They went 2 for 15 from 3-point range and were outrebounded in the second half 20-10.
“I think we’ve just got to be more calm and more patient when we’re out there making decisions,” Williams said, repeating what has become this team’s season mantra. “I don’t know. Hopefully we’ll turn it around next week.”
The Minnesota seniors, Hoffarber and Nolen, were honored with framed jerseys and warm standing ovations before the game. Nolen has shed the walking boot for his broken right foot, but Smith said he doesn’t see him playing in the Big Ten tournament.
Hoffarber played in his 131st career game, a school record for the sharp-shooting left-hander with the extra-quick release. He spun a double-pump layup off the glass for a three-point play and a 57-56 lead with 1:48 left, but the Nittany Lions sank all six of their free throws in the final two minutes.
Hoffarber answered Battle’s 3-pointer with a one-handed flip from the lane to tie the game at 59, but an uncovered Brooks swished a 3 at the top of the key. After a free throw by Williams, Ralph Sampson airballed a 3-pointer with plenty of time left on the shot clock — “He must’ve missed it by a foot,” Smith said — and Tim Frazier followed with a pair of foul shots.
Sampson is 5 for 25 this season from behind the arc.
Hoffarber answered with another 3 with 13.8 seconds remaining, but Battle came back with two more free throws and Hoffarber’s tying attempt from 3-point range was on target but hit the rim.