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It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t particularly fun to watch, but when the final horn sounded only one thing mattered — the Gophers had taken down Northwestern 54-48 on the road to lock up a huge win as the stretch run of the conference season began.

Welsh-Ryan Arena has recently become something of a house of horrors for Minnesota, who hadn’t won there since Feb. 6, 2008. And with the Gophers doing themselves no favors by giving up a winnable game when the Wildcats visited Williams Arena two weeks ago, the game had huge implications in determining Minnesota’s postseason hopes. Win and continue to aim for the magic number of victories that would lock in a bid, or lose and enter the panic zone with the cream of the conference crop right around the corner.

The Gophers chose the former, behind inspired play from Drizzy Mathieu and a gutsy, if not inconsistent performance from Mo Walker, who had an important 8 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks. Mathieu was the only Minnesota player to notch double figures, and had a tremendous game (and second half), where he shredded the Wildcat defense to the tune of 18 points on 7-10 shooting.

And while the team shot a decent 46% from the field, the story of the game was the ability to overcome some pretty shoddy fundamentals and mental mistakes. Behind a slew of unforced turnovers, the Gophers gave Northwestern chance after chance to stay in the game. In fact, by the end, the Gophers had racked up 17 turnovers. Thankfully, the Wildcats were largely unable to take advantage of the free chances, as they shot only 30% from the field. Drew Crawford, the conference’s leading scorer, was held to only 1-15 shooting, turning in a season-low 2 points. Even JerShonn Cobb’s 23 points weren’t enough to get over the hump for Northwestern.

Outside of Mathieu, the Gophers didn’t have any standout performances, one way or the other. Malik Smith was entirely absent, scoring a single point at the end of the game, while #Hollinsanity, Joey King and Elliott Eliason combined for only 25 points. And, speaking of fundamentals, the team nearly shot itself in the foot from the free throw line, going only 10-18 for a 55% clip.

In the end, though, the Gophers overcame their own mistakes in the 2nd half to turn the tables on Northwestern. Bouncing between the 2-3 zone and man-to-man defense, Minnesota gave up plenty of three-point attempts to the Wildcats in the first half, which nearly spelled disaster. But Austin Hollins locked down Crawford, and Cobb cooled off and ran into foul trouble later in the game as Northwestern was unable to recover.

In terms of postseason implications, this game was huge. The Gophers have the opportunities to put themselves in great position to receive an NCAA bid if they can win the easier games, and this was definitely one they needed to take care of. A loss meant they would almost have to beat one of Ohio State, Iowa or Michigan — a truly tall task. But with the win, they are still in control their own destiny against Illinois and Penn State.

Notes/Thoughts:

  • Defensively, I’m still unclear why Pitino ever runs a zone defense. It’s fairly ineffective in that the players just aren’t disciplined enough to hold their spots. Too much collapsing leads to lots of open three pointers, which can kill teams quickly. The Gophers switched into mostly a man-to-man defense in 2nd half and it paid huge dividends.
  • The Gophers lead the B1G in steals, but were only able to corral 3 tonight.
  • Austin Hollins hit only two three-pointers, one of which was extremely timely, but his greatest contribution was locking down Drew Crawford, who is Northwestern’s lifeline.