Lawrence Westbrook could have sulked. He could have complained at the end of the bench about Tubby Smith's decision to keep him on the sidelines to start the game.
Westbrook didn't do any of that. And for the second time this season, Westbrook took over a game during the final minutes against the Badgers of Wisconsin. The junior guard rescued an otherwise stagnant Minnesota offense by scoring 15 second half points--and the team's last 10--to lift Minnesota to a fun 51-46 win over the Badgers Wednesday night at Wiliams Arena..
For their part, the Badgers didn't give this game away. They played their typical stingy defense. And senior Marcus Landry did his best to put his team on his back, scoring a game-high 18 points to give the Badgers a late 46-43 lead.
But Westbrook had none of it. On the bench to start the game, the enigmatic shooting guard put the Golden Gophers back in the thick of the NCAA Tournament conversation.
Before Westbrook stole the show, the Gophers claimed a 10 point first half lead by pounding the ball inside. Minnesota's high-low set with freshmen Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson was effective, if not proficient. At one point, the Gophers led the inside scoring battle 20-2. That couldn't have made Bo Ryan happy.
But it was an indication that Tubby Smith has laid down the law. With the team's porous outside shooting of late, the Gophers are clearly at their best when they are scoring inside (or in transition). Iverson had 8 points inside and Sampson had 4. But along with their points, both big men also were able to get the Badgers in to early second half foul trouble.
Speaking of laying down the law, Westbrook wasn't the only starting guard to ride the pine at the beginning of the game. Al Nolen was replaced in the starting lineup by Devoe Joseph. Frankly, I completely agree with Smith's decision to bench Nolen and Westbrook. He needed to send a message to both players, who have had a tendency to play out of control lately.
Joseph played admirably. He hit an open jumper on the wing to open the game. And he played solid defense during crunch time. The fact that Joseph was on the floor in the final minutes should indicate Smith's confidence in the freshman guard. Blake Hoffarber started at the other guard spot and contributed despite not being the three-point ace he was last year. As someone noted in the game thread, Hoffarber is superior to all of his teammates when it comes to executing a simple entry pass. Hoffarber only had 2 points, but he led the team in assists (3) and, in my opinion, earned more playing time.
During Minnesota's February struggles, perhaps the biggest issue was turnovers. Well, tonight the Gophers had just 10 turnovers to Wisconsin's 14. If the message Smith was sending was to protect the ball, the kids heard it.
But the night, even if it started auspiciously, belonged to Westbrook. It was a team effort, but the young man from Chandler, Arizona is the biggest reason Goldy the Gopher was running around with a broom at Williams Arena late Wednesday night. For the Badgers, it had to be almost like deja vu. Let's flash back to Minnesota's 78-74 overtime win in Madison.
In particular, Westbrook was insane. He finished with a career-high 29 points (nine in overtime), and it was the type of offensive performance that he's always been capable of but rarely produced. He was every bit the go-to man the Gophers need. He hit from outside. He made Jordan-esque hanging, double-clutch, reverse, under-handed layups. OK, that's a stretch. But he was damn good.
Westbrook has had his ups and downs this year, but for the second time this season he's carried his teammates during the final minutes against our border rival. And for taking the benching in stride and performing anyway, Westbrook deserves the accolades he will receive.
Next up: One more at Williams Arena. Senior night for Jamal Abu-Shamala and Jonathan Williams. A win and we're in.