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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Westbrook outduels Battle as Lions fall in Big Ten opener

MINNEAPOLIS – Penn State found its touch from the field and overcame a double-digit first-half deficit to come within grasp of an impressive road win to open its Big Ten slate.

Lawrence Westbrook erased that possibility down the stretch.

Minnesota’s senior guard tied a career-high with 29 points as the Golden Gophers (10-3, 1-0) rode a strong finish to upend the Nittany Lions, 75-70, Tuesday night in front of a packed house at Williams Arena.

Westbrook shot 11-16 from the floor and drained four three-pointers, three of which came in a late second-half flourish to ultimately bury PSU.

Talor Battle scored 23 points and added 6 rebounds for Penn State (8-5, 0-1). The junior nailed a three-pointer to give the Lions a 53-48 lead with 9:37 to go in the game, but Westbrook and the Golden Gophers took over from there.

Westbrook provided the impetus for the Gophers by notching 18 points after the break as Minnesota connected on six three-pointers overall in the second-half.

Penn State outscored Minnesota 43-41 in the second-half and kept it close by shooting an impeccable 9-18 from behind the arc in the game, but turnovers and sloppy execution in the final minutes plagued the Lions as the team committed 14 turnovers to Minnesota’s seven on the night.

Damian Johnson scored four of his seven points on two key buckets from point-blank range in the final two minutes to put the icing on the cake as Minnesota won its second conference home opener in three seasons under Tubby Smith. Blake Hoffarber converted on three three-pointers on seven attempts for 11 points in the game.

The Lions’ supporting cast picked up the slack for Battle as forward Andrew Jones had a strong outing on the low block. Jones’ presence was lacking in the majority of Penn State’s non-conference campaign, but the junior asserted himself Tuesday as he put forth 12 points on 6-10 shooting and 8 rebounds in the loss.

Both teams were tied at 10-10 when the Gophers embarked on a time-consuming 11-0 run to gain the upper hand early in the opening half. Westbrook extended Minnesota’s lead to 34-27 at halftime after his jumper found the bottom of the net with only two seconds remaining.

Jones’ lay-up with 15:22 remaining in the second-half gave PSU its first lead since it led 7-5 early in the opening frame, but the Lions could not hold on to what was a seven-point lead with 13:54 to go.

David Jackson registered 11 points on 4-5 shooting as PSU’s third scorer in double figures. Jeff Brooks added nine in the Lions’ second loss in their last four games.

Penn State has dropped four of its five losses by five points or less this season. The team will resume conference play Jan. 3 at the Bryce Jordan Center for its Big Ten home opener against Wisconsin (10-2).

-Pete Jensen

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