Jan. 22—As Gophers men's basketball teammates and coaches bustled about, getting ready to restart play against Rutgers on Saturday, Payton Willis just sat there in his folding chair on the Williams Arena court.
The point guard was milking every last second of rest he could find during timeouts because Minnesota needed him more than ever with three starters out due to injury or illness, including leading scorer Jamison Battle, third-leading scorer E.J. Stephens and veteran starting center Eric Curry.
After conserving, Willis expended all his energy on the court. Playing all 40 minutes, Willis scored a career-high 32 points (more than double his season average), tied a program record with eight made 3-pointers and distributed seven assists.
Saturday showed when there is a Willis, there is a way. After Willis labeled Sean Sutherlin drawing a charge on Scarlet Knight's star Ron Harper Jr., as "the play of the game" with four seconds left, Willis sank two free throws as Minnesota held on to beat Rutgers 68-65.
Minnesota (11-5, 2-5 Big Ten) snapped a four-game losing streak since Dec. 22 and head coach Ben Johnson won his first Big Ten home game. Johnson and Co. learned those three starters would be out on Saturday morning and held a quick walk-through with players on how their game-plan would shift.
"There was no BS," Johnson said. "I think because (the players) knew they were up against it, their focus became even more. They became tighter in a good way."
Without Stephens, Luke Loewe, who was also overcoming his own non-COVID illness, stepped up with 19 points, and without Curry and Battle, true freshman big man Treyton Thompson made his first collegiate start and set a career high with 10 points and added six rebounds.
While Willis led the U on the floor, Johnson's primary impression was Willis' toughness, composure and confidence, which Johnson felt lifted his less-experienced teammates. Each U starter played at least 36 minutes and 50 seconds, two reserves chipped in only three minutes apiece, and Johnson told Willis pregame he was likely going to play all 40.
Willis took advantage of the added seconds of down time. "It's a little bit of added deep breaths, but yeah, sometimes it's just a time to get my mental right, too, and think about the next play," he said. Maybe there were premonitions.
For all Willis did, Geo Baker was Minnesota's foil. As Willis stacked up big shots, Baker answered nearly every one. He finished with 25 points and seven 3-pointers. Harper ended with 12, four below his team-high average (16.5).
The news Minnesota would be without three starters immediately moved the betting line from the Gophers being a 1.5-point favorite to a 3.5-point underdog. The Knights (11-7, 5-3) had won six of seven games, including a two-point win over Iowa on Wednesday, but fell to 1-6 on the road.
Johnson expressed concerned Friday about the mental state of players having to deal with sudden setbacks in the second year of the pandemic, including Wednesday's game against Penn State postponeed, but there were no signs of a lull early Saturday as Minnesota staked a 17-5 lead.
"Our guys were ready; they blocked that out early," Johnson said. "That was a non-negotiable. We want everybody to be healthy, but in today's day and age, I just don't know if that's realistic. Stuff happens. Stuff snowballs."
Rutgers continually chipped away at the lead and stacked up a 19-2 run, but Willis and Thompson each made two 3-pointers, including Thompson's buzzer-beater, to give Minnesota a 31-30 halftime lead.
While they were down three starters, Sutherlin and reserve Danny Ogele were back from missing the Iowa game and the U had at least seven scholarship players available to meet Big Ten rules and the game could be played.
While Loewe wasn't feeling well, he enjoyed watching Willis take over. "It was an amazing performance," he said. "It was actually fun to watch and be on the floor with him. He was huge for us. ... He hit some super-tough buckets in some timely situations, but he's the leader of this team and that's what we needed from him (Saturday). He definitely came through."