INDIANAPOLIS-- The experts called it an elimination game. Both Northwestern and Minnesota knew the stakes. A loss today in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament would extinguish whatever hopes the teams had of snaring an NCAA at-large berth on Selection Sunday.
Or as Lawrence Westbrook frankly put it, “I’m not gonna lie, we watch TV. It was a big game for us to win today. If we just keep doing that, I think our fate's in our own hands."
And no one can accuse Westbrook of not doing his part to ensure a Big Dance invitation for his Gophers.
Although scoreless at halftime, the junior guard exploded for a team-high 14 points after intermission to propel Minnesota to a hard-fought 66-53 win over Northwestern Thursday afternoon.
Both squads seemed a little jittery as the tournament kicked off. Badly missed three-pointers, butterfingers, and loose balls galore defined the first ten minutes of the contest.
Westbrook admitted to playing a little tentative early, but also said that he “didn’t want to come out and force anything; I just tried to let the game come to me.”
The Gophers overcame a poor first-half defensive effort that saw Northwestern star Kevin Coble rack up 19 points, including a buzzer-beating three-pointer to pull the Wildcats within six points at the break.
According to coach Tubby Smith, stopping Coble was the topic of halftime.
Big shocker there.
When a Big Ten player scores 19 points in a game, it’s a remarkable achievement. When it’s 19 points in a half, serious corrections are needed. And Smith’s players responded.
“They [the players] took it to heart and decided to do a better job defensively,” an exhausted and pleased Smith said after the game. “We were able to run them off the three-point line and chase them more.”
A great deal of credit for the improved Gopher defense goes to Ralph Sampson’s team-high five blocked shots. Minnesota swatted away eleven field goal attempts in all, and as a result, Northwestern struggled to manufacture quality offensive possessions—especially in the second half. The Wildcats finished 32.7% from the floor, while Minnesota checked in at 43.8%.
Despite not finding much success inside, ninth-seeded Northwestern, a team that has overachieved all season, wasn’t about to go away quietly. After trailing almost the entire way, the resilient Wildcats battled back to grab a 49-47 lead, their only advantage of the second half.
Smith credited his team for staying poised down the stretch: “I never saw that panic in their eyes”. Whenever Minnesota need a hoop late, Westbrook delivered, and the Gophers really buckled down on the defensive end, holding Northwestern without a point for over seven minutes to reclaim momentum (and ultimately victory).
When the dust had settled, the Gophers had advanced--and earned a date in the quarterfinals Friday against No. 1 seed Michigan State. The Spartans embarrassed their visitors when the teams met last month, posting a lopsided 76-47 win. Smith is confident that his team has improved, although he added that, “Michigan State has improved since then too. We'll have to play a better game than we did today.”
So what’s the verdict from Indianapolis? Are the Gophers safely on the good side of the bubble? Or might another beatdown from the Spartans tomorrow send Minnesota right back to a state of perpetual worry as Selection Sunday looms?
Tubby Smith's team has 22 wins--and counting. Most experts think that’s enough to send Minnesota dancing. After the game, Smith was asked about those predictions, and his answer was straightforward and simple:
“I hope they’re right!”
In Indianapolis this weekend, there’s a lot of gritty, hard-fought basketball going on—and yes, a lot of hoping too.