Give a Cat a chance, and the Gophers will pay
Minnesota did what it did against Northwestern in the first game of this series. Almost to a tee. The second chance the Golden Gophers were giving the Wildcats was eerily bizarre.
Here was Minnesota with a large rebounding advantage — at what point grabbing seven offensive rebounds off 11 missed shots — having the athleticism advantage and the advantage on the scoreboard. Northwestern could hang around but it felt like a matter of time. Tre Demps, making his first career start, hit a 3-pointer to bring Northwestern within three at the half. Perhaps that was the sign Northwestern would not go away.
Or perhaps Minnesota simply could not put NU away. And with the confidence growing from a big win at Illinois and a strong showing against Indiana, Minnesota could not afford to keep NU in the game. It turned out it was a matter of time before the Wildcats turned the tables and took control of the game. Minnesota seemed surprised that this had finally happened since the team could not put away the unranked homestanding Northwestern team.
There was no despair. There was no woe is me. Everything for Northwestern worked and Minnesota played right into its hands.
The Wildcats defeated the Golden Gophers 55-48, putting together an incredible run to overtake the Gophers and capture the comfortable win at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Wednesday.
The wildcats got a big performance Jared Swopshire and Alex Marcotullio. Swopshire scored eight of his 16 points early in the game to pace Northwestern and then came up big late in NU’s run to seal this game. Marcotullio had just six points but both of his 3-pointers came at key moments for the Wildcats when it looked like they might let this lead familiarly slip away.
And it was, after all, these two anchoring NU’s defense in the 1-3-1 that gave Minnesota so much trouble in the second half.
The Gophers committed 15 turnovers and had just 11 assists, struggling to solve NU’s defense all night. The 1-3-1 was extremely effective in forcing several of those turnovers.
All credit should go to Northwestern for executing, getting out in transition in spots and making baskets. It can be that simple. This game though went against NU’s normal script. The Wildcats were the aggressors in transition and struggled from beyond the arc, hitting only 4 of 12. The Wildcats also had only 11 assists in the game going up against their 11 turnovers. But the early confidence Swopshire gave the team and the growing urgency as Minnesota allowed NU to remain in the game, continued to grow under the surface.
The Gophers, by all rights, should have and could have put this game away much earlier and not given the Wildcats the chance. They missed 10 of their 17 free throws, had those 15 turnovers as previously mentioned and grabbed 17 offensive rebounds (posting a 48.6 percent offensive rebound rate, meaning they grabbed nearly half of their misses). The Gophers failed to convert on second chance opportunities.
More than that, Minnesota could not get out of its own way as NU took the game to Minnesota. The Cats got to the line for 32 free throws, and while they made only 17 of those attempts, the subsequent foul trouble affected this game. Austin Hollins fouled out with nearly 10 minutes to go in the game, leaving the Gophers without one of their top guards.
At that point, Northwestern went to its 1-3-1 and the turnover count for Minnesota seemed to grow and the Northwestern momentum train was heading downhill.
This was a huge confidence-boosting win for the Wildcats. Northwestern has found its identity and is doing what it has to do to win games now. That is a lot farther than where we were a few weeks ago when things looked pretty bleak.
Even on a night Northwestern did not shoot well — 42.5 percent from the floor — the team found a way to get stops and grind out a win. That is confidence-boosting. Northwestern can and will play better games offensively. Defensively, the team made up for the bad offense. And those are great signs.
One thing teams in the Big Ten better have learned by now: if you do not put these Wildcats away, they have a very good chance of coming out and biting you.