The Gophers came into their contest against Northwestern sitting squarely on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament and desperately in need of stopping a three-game slide that had included meltdowns and upsets. A loss against Northwestern would have meant an almost insurmountable road to the Big Dance and another “should’ve” miss that has plagued the team all season.
In a couple strokes of Blake Hoffarber luck, however, the Gophers avoided having to call their season quits in late January. The gritty shooting guard dumped 20 points on the Wildcats on 5-8 three point shooting, pulled down seven rebounds and dished out four assists in addition to hitting two ice-cold threes near the end of the game to put the Gophers back up in front when another meltdown seemed imminent. Hoffarber’s 20 points marked his fifth game of 20 or more points this season. Even in the face of a seemingly endless string of the three-pointers from Northwestern, Minnesota hung tough and eeked out a victory.
Through the first half the Gophers looked confident on offense and held their own on defense. Northwestern’s worrisome 1-3-1 zone only made brief appearances and the team went into the intermission with a comfortable 33-25 lead. The first half was filled with blocked shots by the Gophers, who overcame an early six-point deficit to end the half up eight.
The beginning of the second half was more of the same, with Minnesota upping their lead to as much as 13. Northwestern, however, fully switched to their pesky 1-3-1 zone defense which immediately caused the Gophers problems. Much like the fiasco in Evanston last year, the Wildcat zone pinned the guards near halfcourt and suffocated any offensive movement. Forcing the Gophers into bad passes, Northwestern capitalized on turnovers with points and quickly transformed a 13-point deficit into a one point lead. Hoffarber, though, nailed a late three to retake the lead, before turning around and hitting an ice-cold, buzzer-beating three on the ensuing possession to up the lead to four, which Minnesota never relinquished.
The game itself was well-played for the most part, but definitely not a performance to hang your hat on. I don’t want to diminish the win by any means. A win is a win, and a victory over a fellow bubble team in the Big Ten is huge, but the Gophers definitely escaped with this victory. Once again they let a double-digit lead evaporate through sloppiness. Once again they demonstrated a lack of composure when things started to get tough. And once again they often looked borderline lost (albeit not as bad as other games) in their halfcourt offense. But unlike other meltdowns this year, Minnesota did not cave. Instead they showed a very tiny speck of resolve that allowed them to stick with it and turn a loss into a victory. Perhaps we are on to something.
A few game notes:
- Damian Johnson only played 16 minutes in the game, having to sit with foul trouble. Paul Carter got the majority of his leftover minutes, playing better than his line (6 points, 2-7 shooting) indicated.
- Sampson, Iverson, Johnson and Carter destroyed the Wildcats down low defensively, putting together 11 blocks. Northwestern never established an inside presence and relied mainly on jump shots to score.
- Lawrence Westbrook chipped in 18 points and hit shots when they counted. His Superman impressions were fewer than usual and he even added a season-high six assists.
- Devoe had a rough game, trying to do too much at times. He pulled in three steals, but also gave away the ball four times. He had five points
- Justin Cobbs was basically invisible. 12 minutes, no points, no assists, no steals, one rebound, one shot.
- Rodney Williams only played 10 minutes, but scored his lone two points on an alley oop from Colton Iverson. Williams failure on multiple alley oop attempts later in the game, had Tubby throwing up his arms in disgust and possibly contributed to his lack of real minutes.
I’ll break down later this week where the Gophers sit in terms of postseason chances and what to expect the rest of the season. For now, we’ll revel in the team’s first victory since Jan. 9.