Wildcats not alone at the bottom anymore

Interim coach Jim Molinari played all 10 available players in the loss.

Zach Eisendrath

The one team most people thought Minnesota’s men’s basketball team could beat instead embarrassed the Gophers on their home court.

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Michigan State
WHEN: 6 p.m. Wednesday
WHERE: East Lansing, Mich.

Minnesota lost 55-40 to Big Ten bottom-feeder Northwestern at Williams Arena – its sixth straight loss against the Wildcats.

From the onset, the Gophers (7-12 overall, 1-4 Big Ten) struggled to find a rhythm against the Wildcats’ tricky 1-3-1 zone defense, which held Minnesota to a season-low 40 points.

Interim coach Jim Molinari said teams need to do many things right to break down Northwestern’s unusual trapping defense. He said his team failed to do any of those things.

“(The defense is) difficult for anyone when you have to have an inside threat and be able to hit threes,” he said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t do either of those. We tried to go different ways to get scoring from other places. We couldn’t find anything.”

Molinari tried everything to solve his team’s offensive woes. In fact, he played all 10 available players to see if one could spark an offense that has fizzled since junior center Spencer Tollackson broke his hand two weeks ago.

In his attempt to use more size to beat the Wildcats (11-8, 1-5), Molinari inserted sophomore center Jonathan Williams and redshirt freshman guard Kevin Payton into the starting lineup. When he felt he needed a better ball handler to combat the zone, freshman guard Lawrence Westbrook was called upon for 20 minutes of work.

But neither move helped the Gophers score more points.

On the other side of the court, the Wildcats were executing many of their offensive sets to perfection, to grab a 29-20 halftime lead.

Things didn’t get any better for Minnesota in the opening moments of the second half. A fast break led to an eventual dunk by Northwestern freshman forward Jeff Ryan to put the Wildcats ahead 33-20, prompting Molinari to call a time out just 1:07 into the half.

The Gophers cut the deficit down to 10 on back-to-back three-pointers by junior guard Lawrence McKenzie and junior forward Dan Coleman, but Minnesota wouldn’t get any closer.

Molinari said his team’s offensive struggles led to the team eventually breaking down on defense as its overall confidence dwindled.

“Our defense let down because we were so frustrated about not being able to do anything on the other end,” he said.

With no scoring presence inside, Northwestern’s zone made it especially tough for the now perimeter-oriented Gophers, according to sophomore guard Jamal Abu-Shamala.

“It’s tough when you have 10 eyes on you every time you touch the ball,” he said. “They know where they’re supposed to be and they’re a very active unit.”

McKenzie, who continues to do everything he can to shoulder Minnesota’s offensive load and scored a team-high 15 points, said the unique zone didn’t let the Gophers swing the ball like they would have liked.

“Against a zone you really want to move the ball a lot, but the way they play doesn’t let you do that,” he said. “If you’re not aggressive against it, it can make you look really bad.”

And Minnesota did look bad against the Wildcats. But that doesn’t mean Molinari is letting a team riding a four-game losing streak quit on him.

While losing to a Wildcats team that hasn’t won a conference game in five tries can be especially discouraging, Molinari said he still hopes his young team continues to fight.

“I just keep telling them that it’s a rough time and they need to have faith in the system and that means persevering,” he said. “If you keep persevering, you’re going to mature, and when you mature, you’re eventually going to get some breaks. But let’s make no mistake – this is very hard.”

Nurumbi leaves

Junior forward Engen Nurumbi decided to transfer from the program Friday.

Nurumbi, a native of Kinshasa, Congo, transferred to the Gophers from Arizona Western Junior College. He failed to make Minnesota’s rotation and only appeared sparingly in nine games with the team.

Molinari said Nurumbi’s desire for more playing time was a large factor in his decision to leave.

“We understand Engen’s desire to transfer and wish him the best,” Molinari said in a release. “We appreciate his efforts during his time here.”