Northwestern deserves credit for a second half comeback from down 13 points (the move to risk playing the 1-3-1 really paid off) to take a lead in this contest, but Minnesota guard Blake Hoffarber deserves even more credit for essentially taking over the game in crunch time. Hoffarber scored two big threes and two big free throws, plus got the game’s key rebound to ensure the Gophers held off NU’s comeback attempt. For Minnesota this game will place them back in the running for the NCAA Tournament. On the other hand, this loss puts Northwestern in a Mission Impossible situation James Phelps and Ethan Hunt would find intimidating—the Wildcats now must win at either Michigan State or Wisconsin in order to have a legitimate case on Selection Sunday.
In a game like this any one play might have been the difference, but the truth was Minnesota’s 21-7 first half run, which started after NU missed a shot which would have put them up eight, was essentially the game changing moment. Minnesota upped their pressure and the Wildcats, most notably reserve guard Nick Fruendt, melted under the pressure like the Wicked Witch in rain storm. The worst moment had to be the play where it was clear Fruendt was terrified to throw the ball inbounds despite the fact that two players were standing so close he probably could have handed the rock to them. Instead, he gave the ball to Michael Thompson in the corner and Thompson proceeded to pass the ball out of bounds to Bill Carmody.
The other element of the Gopher pressure which hurt NU was the size factor. With Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson inside NU became essentially just a three point shooting team. The Wildcats made 12 threes in the game, but only 10 twos. Also, many of those twos were jump shots as the Wildcats basically couldn’t get near the rim. Luka Mirkovic had a good game on the glass with 13 rebounds, but was routinely swatted when attempting to convert at the hoop. I don’t understand why Mirkovic won’t throw in a head fake or something on occasion. It doesn’t need to be anything elaborate, but something to the defender out of balance sure would help. I also want to clearly convey the fact to NU’s players that when trying to finish in traffic against a bigger player a finger roll is not a good choice. When forced to go up in traffic please try to DUNK THE BASKETBALL! Even if you don’t convert, they won’t be able to swat you like they can a finger roll and you’ll probably get fouled.
Of those 12 threes, Thompson made five and John Shurna made four. Thompson’s five threes, though, were his only offense as he ended with 15 points. Shurna managed to score 19 points and get 7 rebounds. It was another solid performance, but I wish he would have pulled the trigger on a three instead of dribbling and taking a forced two with 15 seconds left and NU down three. I’m not really sure what that two would have even accomplished and doubt that was the end result the coaching staff envisioned for that play.
Some people will say Minnesota used their superior bench to win the game, but I didn’t really see NU tire at all. In fact, NU played much better in the second half. However, I do think NU’s lack of bench production is something of an issue. Right now, if every NU starter doesn’t play well, Bill Carmody has no other options. Tonight, NU’s bench contributed 3 points, 2 rebounds, and a whole lot of panic. As a result, even if Crawford and Nash weren’t playing their best games, Carmody had to leave them on the court.
The Wildcats now sit at 3-5 in the Big Ten with 10 games left. NU can probably go 6-4 in those 10 games to get to 9-9, but I’m a little disappointed because this reminds me a ton of last year’s game at Ohio State, and I honestly believe had NU held their late lead in that game the ‘Cats would have been in the Big Dance. I hope the same story doesn’t hold true with this contest.