'We're fighting for an NCAA Tournament berth': Willis scores 21, Gophers beat Badgers 70-52

Minnesota Gophers guard Payton Willis (0) grabbed the loose ball after Wisconsin Badgers guard D'Mitrik Trice (0) tripped and lost it in the first half. ((Photo by Renee Jones Schneider/Star Tribune via Getty Images))

Daniel Oturu tried to downplay Minnesota’s 70-52 win over Wisconsin Wednesday night, saying it was just a regular game and he tries not to focus on the name of the opponent’s jersey.

Payton Willis, the Gophers’ leading scorer in the win, couldn’t help but laugh at his sophomore roommate as he sat next to him post game talking to the media.

“He’s lying. He’s my roommate, he woke me up at 10 a.m. blasting music, saying we’ve got to get this one. It meant a little bit more, but we’re fighting for an NCAA Tournament berth, so every game is a big game for us,” Willis said.

It always means a little more when Minnesota faces Wisconsin, regardless of the sport. The Gophers hadn’t beaten the Badgers at Williams Arena since 2014 prior to Wednesday night. Willis, after missing Minnesota’s loss last Thursday at Illinois with a shoulder injury, scored a career-high 21 points on 5-of-7 shooting from three-point range.

It was just his second game scoring in double figures in Minnesota’s last 10 after being hampered by an ankle injury, and his latest shoulder setback.

“It’s never good being hurt, but it kind of was a blessing in disguise. I got a few days of rest and my ankle got to fully heal. It’s always motivation every time you get hurt because sometimes you take the game for granted, so it kind of motivated me a little bit to not take the game for granted,” Willis said.

Oturu, fresh off being named a top-20 finalist for the Wooden Award, got his 12th double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds as four Gophers scored in double figures in front of more than 11,000 fans at Wiliams Arena.

Minnesota improved to 10-2 at The Barn this season, and 6-6 in Big Ten play with eight games left before the Big Ten Tournament.

“Not only is it Wisconsin and that means lot to our university and our state, but also, we want to get back to the NCAA Tournament,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “When you play in The Barn, it’s got to be a special experience. You can’t let people come in here, take over your building and I thought our fans did an unbelievable job there.”

After shooting less than 20 percent from the perimeter in their previous two Big Ten losses, Minnesota shot 9-of-22 (40.9 percent) against the Badgers Wednesday, led by Willis.

Gabe Kalscheur added 11 points, shooting 3-of-8 from the perimeter. Marcus Carr nearly had a triple-double with 15 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds. The only other player to record a triple-double in Gopher history? Mychal Thompson.

It was the first time in Big Ten play this season that Carr, Willis and Oturu have all scored in double figures in the same game. The Gophers have lacked a consistent third scorer behind Oturu and Carr most of the season. Wednesday night, it was Willis.

The three combined to shoot 18-of-35 from the field, including 6-of-10 from the perimeter. Throw in Kalscheur, and the four were 9-of-18.

“It’s huge. Making shots is so important. We’re not that bad of a shooting team and when those guys are clicking, it opens up things for everybody else,” Pitino said.

The Gophers came in knowing they had only five home games left, each a chance to inch closer to an NCAA Tournament berth. Minnesota got out to an early 7-2 lead and never trailed in the game. They led by as many as 17 points in the first half before taking a 45-32 lead at the break.

The Gophers got 3-pointers from Kalscheur and Oturu to open the second half with a 51-32 lead. Minnesota led by as many as 22 points in the second half.

“I thought Minnesota did a good job of setting the tone right from the start. We let them get way too comfortable, I thought, the first half,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said.

It was not a happy homecoming for three Minnesota natives on the Wisconsin roster. Lakeville native Nate Reuvers led the Badgers with 14 points and seven rebounds, but shot 6-of-18 from the field. Maple Grove native Brad Davison had just four points, finished 0-of-3 from the field and received loud boos from the crowd every time he touched the ball. It was his first game back after a suspension stemming from a flagrant foul at Iowa. Lakeville native Tyler Wahl had just two points and six rebounds in 26 minutes.

The Badgers shot just 22 percent in the second half, were 7-of-29 (24.1 percent) from three-point range for the game and the Gophers out-scored them in the paint, 24-8.

Minnesota’s remaining home games include Iowa, Indiana, Maryland and Nebraska. But up next is a tough game at Penn State, and a chance for a sweep after the Gophers beat the Nittany Lions 75-69 earlier this season.

“We just had to fight for what we’re fighting for in the end, which is the NCAA Tournament. We had to go out here and get a win,” Oturu said.