With the Gophers down three starters Saturday against Rutgers, senior captain Payton Willis had to give a little bit extra to make up for what was missing on the court.
Coach Ben Johnson usually discourages any individual player to "put the cape on" in trying to be the hero, but Willis knew that's what it would take without several key teammates, including leading scorer Jamison Battle.
Playing all 40 minutes, Willis came to the rescue with a career-high 32 points, hitting a school-record-tying eight three-pointers to lead the Gophers to a 68-65 victory in front of an announced crowd of 10,794 at Williams Arena.
"He knows he's going to be the focal point of every team's defense, especially when Jamison's not in," Johnson said of Willis, who shot 11-for-17 from the field. "Credit to him to stay composed, and his confidence level I think carries a lot of guys, and that's what we have to have."
Senior captain Payton Willis, who finished with a career-high 32 points Saturday, said he fed off the energy from the Williams Arena crowd in the #Gophers win against Rutgers. @StribSports @GopherMBB @UnlimitedRange0 pic.twitter.com/BaJ7QOrJ9c
— Marcus R. Fuller (@Marcus_R_Fuller) January 22, 2022
For the second game in a row, the Gophers (11-5, 2-5 Big Ten) had only seven scholarship players available. They played shorthanded in last Sunday's 81-71 loss against Iowa but on Wednesday failed to reach the Big Ten minimum to compete, forcing their game at Penn State to be postponed.
Starters Battle, E.J. Stephens and Eric Curry were out Saturday because of COVID-19 protocols, illness and injury, but the remaining players rallied in their absence.
Willis scored 14 points with four threes in the first half. Freshman Treyton Thompson, who got his first start, scored eight of his career-high 10 points in the first half, including a buzzer-beating three that brought fans to their feet going into halftime with a 31-30 lead.
"Every time the crowd gets rowdy like that it fires me up," Willis said. "I just knew I was going to have to be ultra-aggressive today, and the [shots] just fell for me."
The Gophers ranked last in three-point shooting in Big Ten games at 27.8%, but they went 13-for-24 from beyond the arc Saturday, including 7-for-14 in the first half.
Rutgers (11-7, 5-3) trailed 17-5 early and was caught off guard by the home team's three-point barrage and zone defense. The Scarlet Knights needed a 19-2 run in the first half just to get back into the game.
Battle, Stephens and Curry (ankle) accounted for nearly 40 points and 17 rebounds per game this season, but the Gophers were forced to start Thompson, Sean Sutherlin and Charlie Daniels together for the first time Saturday.
Willis and Luke Loewe, who had 19 points, had been struggling with their outside shooting in Big Ten play, hitting just 23.5% and 27.9% from three, respectively. But the senior guards had the answer to almost every big play from Rutgers guard Geo Baker, who scored 25 points on 7-for-14 shooting from long distance.
Baker scored 11 consecutive points for the Scarlet Knights in the second half, including a three-pointer to give them a 60-57 lead with 7:10 to play, but Loewe responded with a jumper.
Only four other players had hit eight threes in a game in Gophers history, but Willis pulled up from nearly 30 feet to beat the shot clock and tie that mark with 4:27 left. That gave his team a 64-60 advantage.
"It was an amazing performance," Loewe said of Willis. "It was actually fun to watch being on the floor with him. He was huge for us today, brought energy, hit some super tough buckets in some timely situations."
After Baker's last three cut the margin to 66-65, Rutgers forced a turnover from Willis on the press and had a chance to take the lead.
After all Willis did to give the Gophers an opportunity to get their first Big Ten home victory, he had to watch as Harper tried to power through his defender on the baseline. Sutherlin took the charge with four seconds left to help seal the gutsy victory.
"That was huge," Willis said. "That was the play of the game. He saved the game for us right there."