Minnesota's win Thursday afternoon over Northwestern was in some ways a microchosm of the entire season. The Gophers use high-intensity defense to start strong, cooled in the half court offense in the second half, but did just enough in the end to pull out a close 66-53 win in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament.
And the win, it should be considered a good win after all Northwestern has done this year, should get the Gophers into the Dance regardless of how they fare tomorrow against Michigan State.
After building a double-digit first half lead, Northwestern rallied. Kevin Coble was a force in the first half, scoring 19 points but was slowed in the second half (just 2 points) because of a combination of foul trouble and great defense by Damian Johnson. And as Coble cooled, Minnesota's offensive difference maker, Lawrence Westbrook, took over. The junor guard finished with a team-high 14 points, including numerous clutch shots and free throws down the stretch.
Also playing a big role was the on-again, off-again Devron Bostick. After being an afterthought for many games during the second half of the year, Bostick provided an offensive spark in the first half to get the Gophers out to an early lead. He finished with 11 points.
Bostick was part of the second group in the first half that made a world of difference. The game had a stagnant pace until Bostick, Devoe Joseph, Blake Hoffarber, Colton Iverson and Paul Carter came in for the middle minutes of the first half. That group built the lead. Along with Bostick, Iverson in particular was impressive with his defense and hustle plays.
But as the game tightened in the second half, that second group stalled as Nortwestern's 1-3-1 zone caused havoc. It wasn't until the last 4 minutes of the game, with Al Nolen, Westbrook, Johnson and Ralph Sampson III back on the floor did the Gophers finally find a groove again. Sampson was tremendous in the final minutes on defense, blocking a handful of Craig Moore drives. Sampson finished with 5 blocks and he slammed in a late lob pass from DJ to put the nail in the coffin. RSIII finished with 9 points.
The Gophers did a much better job today of handling the basketball. After routinely turning the ball over 15 to 20 times per game, Minnesota coughed the ball up just 9 times. For a team that struggles in the half court as it is, the only way they can win close games is to take care of the basketball. Combine that with an 11 to 2 block advantage, and the Gophers have a formula to win.
Perimeter shooting was again atrocious. As a team the Gophers shot just 21 percent. Bostick was 1 for 6. Joseph was 1 for 4. Hoffarber was 0 for 3. Nolen was 0 for 2. But somehow the Gophers did enough when Northwestern was playing a 2-3 zone to get the Wildcats to back off. If teams are smart they will start playing a whole bunch of 2-3 zone against the Gophers, and pack the zone defense back into the paint and simply force the Gophers to hit from the outside.
A couple other observations:
- After playing an unusually high number of minutes in the regular season ending loss to Michigan, Jon Williams didn't play at all.
- Jamal Abu-Shamala received the starting nod and played the first 5 minutes and didn't play again.
- Despite starting, Al Nolen played just 18 minutes. But when the game was on the line this time, Nolen got the team into its offense. And his defense probably contributed to Northwestern's dry spell down the stretch.
First thought about MSU: The Gophers are decided underdogs, but they'll have the advantage of having a feel for the big arena. If the Gophers can play even with the Spartans on the glass and limit MSU's run-outs, we could have a close ball game.
I mean, Tubby Smith has to beat Tom Izzo eventually, doesn't he?