No paint, no gain at Minnesota

Katherine Driessen

Can’t go over it, got to go around it.

Northwestern’s (13-7, 3-6 Big Ten) offense couldn’t find any through route in its 81-70 loss at No. 16 Minnesota (16-4, 5-3) on Wednesday night as it struggled to shoot both in and around the Golden Gophers’ stingy, not to mention sizeable, 2-3 zone.

“We didn’t have the size or the strength to compete with them,” coach Bill Carmody said.

The loss, coming just days after dropping an embarrassing 78-46 decision to No. 18 Wisconsin, is yet another stumbling block in NU’s campaign to lock up its first-ever NCAA Tournament bid. Wednesday night marked NU’s second ranked matchup in a four-game stretch against top-25 opponents and a shot for the Cats to record their first conference upset of the season and add a marquee win to their Tournament portfolio.

Carmody said he knew going into the Minnesota matchup that the Golden Gophers would run their 2-3 zone, a defense that showcases their dominance under the boards. With the Big Ten’s best big man, Trevor Mbakwe, protecting the paint for Minnesota, NU needed to sink its shots from the perimeter whenever it got open looks.

“You’ve got to make shots when it’s tough to go inside,” Carmody said.

That was easier said than done in the first half, as the Golden Gophers’ starting lineup featured no one under 6-foot-4. And when the Cats did carve out unobstructed looks they had trouble burying them, shooting 2-for-15 from the field on their first attempts of the night.

The momentum shifted when NU transitioned out if its matchup defense and into its patented 1-3-1 zone, making it more difficult for Minnesota to run its high-low sets.

“It was a good transition for us,” sophomore guard Alex Marcotullio said. “It helped us lock them down a little bit.”

At the other end of the court, the Cats started to hit their offensive stride courtesy of junior forward Drew Crawford, who rebounded from his zero-point performance against Wisconsin with a pair of back-to-back 3-pointers to get NU’s offense firing midway through the opening half.

NU mounted an 18-4 run at the end of the first half to take a 34-33 lead into break.

“Drew really gets the team going when he starts making shots,” Marcotullio said. “We were looking pretty good there for a while.”

But the second half or, more precisely, Minnesota’s Colton Iverson, proved NU’s undoing.

Though NU never fell out of contention, rarely trailing by double digits, Iverson managed to notch all 15 of his points in the second half and give Minnesota the offensive edge it needed to pull away.

“He was dominating,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. “He’s starting to keep the ball up and grasp the concept that he’s 6-(foot)-10.”

To make matters worse, NU got into serious foul trouble by the end of the second half. Minnesota went to the charity stripe 35 times in the second half while NU earned just two foul shots.

With a little more than three minutes left in regulation and NU battling a 10-point deficit, Crawford fouled out of the game.

“Some of the fouls were good fouls to take away shots,” Marcotullio said. “But some of them were ticky tacky little fouls on the perimeter that we did not need to give up. That did end up hurting us.”

Crawford’s 15 points on the night helped to bolster a 16-point front court performance by junior forward John Shurna, who received stitches on his chin after falling into the basket safe guard in the first half. Senior guard Michael Thompson led NU with 18 points.

NU heads home to face its most difficult opponent yet when it hosts No. 1 Ohio State on Saturday.