Men’s Basketball: Just Enough-Wildcats rally from behind, keep NCAA Tournament hopes alive

Danny Daly

Behind by 13 points in the second half with their NCAA Tournament hopes hanging by a thread, the Wildcats didn’t panic, trusting their defense would bring them back. That faith was rewarded Sunday with a 77-74 overtime victory over Minnesota, an equally desperate Big Ten bubble team.

“They did the things they had to do to get the win and we didn’t,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. “We lost our concentration and our focus and when you do that, good teams like Northwestern will take advantage of you.”

The Golden Gophers struggled to contain sophomore forward John Shurna, who led all scorers with 22 points. Three of his teammates joined him in double figures, as the Cats shot 40 percent from the field.

Senior guard Jeremy Nash’s layup gave NU (17-8, 6-7 Big Ten) the first points of the game, but that was the only time it led until the final three minutes. A pair of 3-pointers by Lawrence Westbrook bookended an 11-2 run, as Minnesota (14-10, 5-7) rode a hot shooting spurt to a commanding edge. The Gophers started 6-of-8 from beyond the arc, helping them jump ahead 26-15 with seven-and-a-half minutes left.

While everything seemed to be falling for the Gophers, the Cats were sputtering offensively. They played poorly when junior point guard Michael Thompson was forced to the bench with two fouls before the midway point, and coach Bill Carmody put him back in quickly. Carmody tried to slow the pace down by establishing sophomore center Luka Mirkovic inside, and it worked: Minnesota scored only 31 points in the last 28 minutes of regulation.

“In the first half, we were getting looks, but not really in the flow of the offense,” Carmody said. “It just seemed really hectic and frenetic. Once we started throwing it down to Luka, the tempo was better for us.”

NU challenged Minnesota’s lead multiple times but had trouble pulling even. After the Cats cut the deficit to 28-24, the Gophers made two baskets to go into the locker room with an eight-point advantage.

Though NU crawled close again and trailed just 35-33 after four minutes, Minnesota recovered to stay in control. The Gophers went on a 13-2 run and took a 13-point lead, their largest of the game.

The breaks started going NU’s way after that, and the Cats stormed back, going ahead for the first time since the opening minute on Mirkovic’s trey from the top of the key.

“We came up with a couple of loose balls and got those defensive rebounds,” Thompson said. “Sometimes we would come back and get within five or six points, and they would get an offensive rebound and knock down a shot. On our third run, we didn’t allow them to get that second or third opportunity on the offensive end, and we capitalized when we went on offense.”

Freshman forward Drew Crawford’s layup with 2:46 to go put the Cats up 55-52, and they maintained that lead into the last minute of the half. Then Blake Hoffarber-NU’s nemesis from its loss to Minnesota three weeks ago-tied the game up with his first 3-pointer of the game, adding two more in overtime.

“That guy Hoffarber, he doesn’t make a shot all night and then makes three in three minutes,” Carmody said. “He’s brutal like that, in a good way.”

The Cats had a chance to win in regulation, but Thompson’s short-range floater missed the mark. Still, Thompson said the team was confident going into the extra period. He backed it up with a crucial game-tying 3-pointer two minutes into overtime, and his teammates fed off that energy.

“(Thompson) came over in a timeout, and I told him to stop hanging his head,” Carmody said. “He said, ‘I’m not hanging my-there was an adjective in here-head.’ And then he went out, banged a 3 and made his foul shots.”

After Thompson’s shot, Minnesota never led again. NU’s 11-of-12 performance at the free throw line in overtime sealed its 17th victory, which tied the school record and moved the Cats up to sixth place in the conference.[email protected]