After a red hot first half, the Gophers lost their focus, intensity, composure and eventually the game to the still improving Northwestern Wildcats. Coming at the midway point between their biggest road win in years and their biggest remaining home game of the season, it was a classic trap game scenario, particularly with Northwestern’s unorthodox style of play.
The Wildcats, who run the Princeton offense and a trapping 1-3-1 zone that often results in triple teaming opponents earned their biggest win of the season and improved to 1-4 in the Big Ten. Their conference record is not a good indication of the strides they have made though. They barely lost to Purdue on Thursday, and led Penn State and Michigan State at half time before squandering good opportunities to pull off upsets. They finally put all the pieces together against the Gophers, and kept them together an entire game.
In the early going, it appeared the Gophers would not allow themselves to fall into a trap. The Gophers came out firing and made 12 of their first 15 shots and their first four three-point attempts. They successfully got the ball inside to Colton Iverson who made two lay-ups in the opening minutes of the game. Minnesota also pressed early and often, creating turnovers that led immediately to easy transition baskets on the offensive end. However, despite the forced turnovers and hot shooting, the Gophers only led by three points at half time. For all the turnovers the Gophers created, when Northwestern held on to the ball and actually got a shot off, they were able to score. They made 6 three pointers in the first half and 7-8 free throws.
The second half was all Northwestern. Minnesota’s shots stopped falling, and Northwestern’s 1-3-1 zone defense began to take its toll. Instead of the rapid passing that helped the Gophers find open shots in the first half, Minnesota’s guards, particularly Al Nolen, attempted to and failed to attack the zone off the dribble. This only led to turnovers, 19 total for the game. When the Gophers passed well, the scoring was easy. They had 17 assists on 25 made field goals. On many occasions the scoring came so easily that it only added to the frustration when they would commit a silly turnover the next time down the court. Even when they weren’t committing turnovers, they were content to shoot three pointers that just didn’t fall. This only gave the Wildcats the confidence they needed to beat the Gophers.
If Northwestern was mentally rattled after their near-misses earlier this season, they didn’t show it. They poured it on during a long second half 20-2 run that sunk the Gophers. Craig Moore stepped up multiple times to hit huge three pointers, and with outside shots falling and the Gophers extending their defense, the Gophers were eaten alive by back door cuts. The Wildcats shot 59% in the second half.
Minnesota’s loss is no need to panic. They played the wrong team at the wrong time, and just got beat. Northwestern won’t be getting much farther than the first round of the NIT, but they also aren’t the pathetic excuse for a basketball team that only won one Big Ten game last season. If anything, this might be exactly what the Gophers needed. They are 16-2, still much better than just about everyone predicted, and still are on pace to make it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years. On Thursday they learned that they can compete with anyone in the country. On Sunday they learned they can also lose to anyone in the conference if they don’t come ready to play. When young teams get off to surprising starts, there is always the danger that they will begin to believe their own hype. When Purdue comes to The Barn, and after what will surely be three days of excruciating practices, the Gophers will be firmly rooted in reality, where they will need to be to beat last year’s surprising Big Ten team.
Who did what?
- Damian Johnson was one of a few Gophers who came ready to play. He scored 14 points with four rebounds and three blocks. He also made 2-3 three pointers, and is 4-5 shooting from the outside in his last two games. For anyone who has watched him shoot three-pointers in warm-ups, this is a bizarre but pleasant surprise. I’m not ready to declare Johnson to be outside threat, but if could add a consistent jump shot to his already spectacular slashing ability, his scoring numbers would should up.
- Ralph Sampson III was an aggressive rebounder, but that was about it on Sunday. He scored two points and had five rebounds.
- Colton Iverson looked to be unstoppable in the early moments of the game. For whatever reason, he didn’t play much after that and played only ten minutes the entire game. Tubby Smith must see something he doesn’t like, because Iverson’s second half minutes have all but disappeared since the conference season began.
- Al Nolen’s 10 points on 4-7 shooting was nice, but he had two more turnovers than made shots and only had two assists. He looked dreadful almost all day, and appears to be doing too much on the offensive end in recent games. A good point guard needs to rely on his teammates, but Nolen appears to have lost confidence in his teammates.
- Lawrence Westbrook didn’t have an eye-popping performance, but without his 18 points things could have been much worse. He also had a game-high eight rebounds and his four assists and only two turnovers were a step in the right direction.
- Paul Carter provided a ton of energy again with six points and three steals. Unfortunately, he missed two free throws during what can best be described as a mini-comeback. Those two points probably wouldn’t have made a big difference, but they came at a time when the Gophers were desperate for a bit of momentum.
- Jonathan Williams had a steal without a foul. Amazing.
- Devron Bostick struggled. He had four turnovers in ten minutes.
- Blake Hoffarber struggled again, but he did finally hit a three-pointer. Let’s hope that this is all he needs to get his confidence back.
- Jamal Abu-Shamala didn’t even get a chance to have another big game against Northwestern. He played ten minutes, and showed he was the only Gopher that understood how to beat the Wildcats’ defense with three assists during his short time on the court.
- Travis Busch had a foul and a turnover in four minutes.
- Devoe Joseph played his best game of the conference season with eight points on 3-4 shooting and no turnovers. He looked very comfortable and will hopefully also benefit with a boost of confidence.