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Willis carries shorthanded Gophers to beat Rutgers

The senior scored a career-high 32 points to end a four-game losing streak.

Down to seven scholarship players due to COVID-19 protocols, Payton Willis scored a career-high 32 points to help the Minnesota Golden Gophers defeat the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Saturday afternoon.

The Gophers were coming off a long layoff after Wednesday's game at Penn State was postponed. With Jamison Battle, E.J. Stephens and Eric Curry out of the lineup it opened the door for freshman Treyton Thompson and Sean Sutherlin to make their first career starts.

Despite being shorthanded, the Gophers got off to a strong start. Willis took the offensive load early, scoring five of Minnesota's first seven points. Thompson also made an impact on both ends of the floor to help the Gophers race out to a 17-5 lead.

Rutgers responded with a 15-2 run but Willis continued to stay hot. The senior scored 14 points in the first half and with a buzzer-beater by Thompson, Minnesota went into halftime with a 31-30 lead.

The Scarlet Knights leaned on their 3-point shooting to take control in the second half, knocking down 12 treys on the afternoon. Geno Baker led the charge with seven 3-pointers and a team-high 25 points but for as locked in as the Scarlet Knights were, Willis was on another level. 

After Minnesota fell behind by five points, Willis turned it on to give the Gophers a 61-60 lead. On the next possession, he beat the shot clock and tied the school record with his eighth 3-pointer to make it a 64-60 game.

With the game on the line, both teams tightened up defensively. The Gophers used a 2-3 zone to force eight straight misses by the Scarlet Knights but Minnesota couldn't buy a shot on the other end.

After Paul Mulcahy ended Rutgers' drought, Luke Loewe nailed a long 2-pointer to extend the lead to four points. Baker answered with a 3-pointer on the other end to make it a 66-65 game. With 28.4 seconds left, an errant pass by Willis gave Rutgers a chance to take the lead.

Baker's 3-pointer from the corner went wide but he crashed the boards to force a jump ball with Charlie Daniels. With a chance to win the game, Ron Harper Jr. was called for a charge. After Willis knocked down a pair of free throws, Harper's desperation 3-pointer came up short and the Gophers came away with a victory.

Minnesota (11-5, 2-5 Big Ten) will look to build momentum in the Big Ten when it hosts No. 19 Ohio State on Thursday night.

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