The Gophers followed the Vikings’ playbook on Sunday, taking a big lead and holding off an inspired comeback, bouncing back from a brutal loss to Purdue to defeat the Northwestern Wildcats 77-68 at Williams Arena.
The game was both closer and not as close as the score suggests. Minnesota took a 34-27 lead into halftime before coming out firing after the break, stretching the lead as high as 57-34. Northwestern, playing with just seven guys, promptly went on an 11-0 run and battled for the rest of the game, getting as close as nine with three minutes to play.
But the Gophers held on, powered by a combined 28 second-half points from Daniel Oturu and Marcus Carr, pacing four starters in double-figures. The win brings them back to .500 in the Big Ten at 2-2.
“Any time you get a Big Ten win, it’s a great thing,” said coach Richard Pitino, who praised his team’s resilience after the Purdue game left them “exhausted.”
Among the positives:
Team play. On the first possession of the second half, Gabe Kalscheur got the ball in the corner, pump faked, and passed up an open three to move the ball to Tre’ Williams, who did the same, swinging it to Carr, who passed up a third three, drove, and dropped the ball off to Oturu, who finished an easy two. This excellent sequence highlighted just what kind of night it was.
Eight players scored and six finished with at least six points, with Alihan Demir (11) and Williams (10) getting into double-digits and Payton Willis (7) making a couple of nice shots after missing the previous three games with an injured ankle.
“We want a balanced attack,” said Pitino, emphasizing the Gophers’ 19 assists.
Two-point (and one-point) shooting. Many of those assists came on layups and dunks, as the Gophers finished 17-32 from two-point range. The entire team shot well from inside the arc, whether it was Carr finishing at the rim, Demir scoring in the post, or Oturu slamming it home.
At the free-throw line, they did the unthinkable, going 19-19, with Carr and Oturu combining at 17-17, leading a perfect performance.
“They made every free throw,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins noted. “When we put the game pressure on them, they didn’t give us any help.”
Frontcourt play. The team was carried by the frontcourt, as Oturu, Demir, and Jarvis Omersa all played well tonight. Oturu’s 19 points, 16 rebounds, and 5 blocks led the way, while Demir had his best game in maroon and gold, finishing with 11, 9, and 3 assists, including two beautiful drop offs to Oturu, and Omersa had 4 and 3 in twelve minutes, with another monster dunk. Even Isaiah Ihnen grabbed an offensive rebound and drained a three.
Moreover, they dominated on the glass, again. Northwestern won’t be confused for 1980s Georgetown, but injuries left them starting guys measuring 6-7, 6-9, 6-10, and 6-10, and Minnesota won the rebounding battle for the fifth straight game, this time convincingly, 43-28. They also grabbed 15 offensive boards, resulting in 18 second-chance points.
“As a collective group, we’re always trying to come grab the ball so we can go,” said Oturu.
Of course, not every aspect was as good as the rebounding. One not-so-perfect aspect:
Three-point shooting. It was a good thing the two-point shots were falling because the three-pointers were not. The Gophers put up an absurd 19 shots from beyond the arc in the first half, making just six of them, and finished only 8-29 from distance. It’s tough to win games at that rate, but it was a nice change of pace to do so, and it was promising that the team saw the threes not going in and adjusted accordingly, consistently getting higher-percentage shots in the second half.
And finally, one more thing that wasn’t strictly bad, but is far from desirable:
Marcus Carr’s minutes. Three days after playing 46 minutes against Purdue, looking noticeably tired during two overtime periods in which he turned the ball over three times, Carr played all 40 minutes, at times guarding the full length of the court and handling a press. He did so despite the Gophers holding a double-digit lead nearly the entire second half.
His stat line – 17 points, 7 assists – was solid, but he shot just 3-11, picking up four fouls and turning the ball over three times (which admittedly isn’t terrible for handling the ball so much), and it seems naïve to think his game isn’t affected by the minutes he’s racking up.
Asked after the game if he was tired, Pitino said he didn’t think so, calling Carr "a warrior."
Carr was a bit more candid: “I’m feeling it a little bit,” he admitted, before going on to say he would “take the next few days, get some rest, and I’ll be fine.”
Minnesota will need him fully rested and ready to go. They travel to Michigan State on Thursday, the start of a brutal stretch that is followed by home dates with Michigan and Penn State, three likely top-20 opponents in seven days.