STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Shep Garner’s eyes blazed through droplets of sweat that rolled off his forehead. He didn’t reach for a towel or even a drink, too preoccupied with a question he didn’t expect to hear this early in the season.
Had Penn State faced a must-win situation in just its third game of the Big Ten schedule?
“No doubt,” Garner said. “No doubt.”
Thanks to Garner’s matter-of-fact shooting in the waning moments Saturday, that pressure subsided as Penn State beat Minnesota 86-77.
Payton Banks scored a career-high 24 points, Garner added 20 — including the go-ahead 3-pointer that sparked a 14-6 run over the final 3:46 — and helped Penn State avoid what could’ve been its fourth straight 0-3 start in the Big Ten in as many seasons.
Brandon Taylor added 18 points that helped spoil a hot-shooting night for the Golden Gophers (6-9, 0-3 Big Ten), who made 11 3-pointers and led for most of the game.
“I thought our guys played not to lose rather to win,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said.
Joey King led Minnesota with a career-high 22 points while Nate Mason added 19 and Carlos Morris picked up 15. Most of Mason’s work was done in the first half where he scored 11 and the Gophers built a 36-32 halftime lead on 7 of 12 shooting from 3-point range.
It was a familiar sight for Chambers who brushed off the must-win talk.
Instead, this was a must-finish game from Chambers’ perspective, after he watched his young team cough up a chance to topple No. 3 Maryland last week and recoil to lose to Michigan after the Wolverines started hot and drained 14 3-pointers.
“It was like deja vu,” Chambers said. “They hit a few 3s on us and we kind of get deflated a little bit. Well, that’s the game today. We can’t worry about it and gotta move on. It was just nice to see us finish a game.”
Chambers opted to play his starting five for nearly the entire final six minutes, a span in which Penn State outscored the Gophers 23-6.
NO MORE CHANCES
King’s final 3-pointer, made with 6:06 remaining, was the penultimate basket for the Gophers, who ended with a put-back dunk from Bakary Konate and four foul shots down the stretch.
Penn State gave up just two shots from 3-point range the rest of the way after surrendering plenty of open chances in the first half. Close-quarters defense accounted for two shot-clock violations against the Gophers on back-to-back possessions with less than 3:30 to play.
“We just played harder,” Banks said. “We stopped being lazy. We stopped giving them shots, basically.”
GOPHERS AND ELEPHANTS
Penn State combined with Minnesota to start last season’s Big Ten slate 0-11 and hasn’t started well at all the last three seasons.
The Nittany Lions hadn’t won their first Big Ten game until the final week of January each of the past two years, and didn’t get their first conference win until Feb. 27 the year before.
“Truthfully, I was proud of these guys because there was a big elephant in the room and on our backs because the last three years,” Chambers said. “So for these guys to step up the way they did and go, ‘Oh, here we go again’ or ‘woe is me,’ I think our huddles the last six or seven minutes were terrific.”
Minnesota: Joey King led the Gophers from 3-point range. King made 4 of 7 3-pointers after he combined to make just 7 of 29 in his previous seven games.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions missed six of their first 10 free throws in the second half but closed the game making 13 straight. The Nittany Lions finished 16 of 21 from the free-throw line.
Minnesota hosts Northwestern on Saturday.
Penn State hosts No. 5 Michigan State on Sunday.
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