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Wildcats claw back twice, but Minnesota hangs on

The Gophers have won four-straight in the Big Ten after a 1-3 start to conference play.
Wildcats claw back twice, but Minnesota hangs on
Image by Mark Vancleave

As it has done all season, the Minnesota menâÄôs basketball team was unfazed by its latest wave of adversity.

The 16th-ranked Gophers overcame the loss of starting point guard Al Nolen to beat Northwestern, 81-70, using their size advantage to power through the Wildcats on Wednesday night at Williams Arena.

Senior guard Blake Hoffarber was solid at point guard in relief of Nolen, and his 20 points led all scorers.

âÄúIâÄôve just got to get acclimated with playing the point guard position,âÄù said Hoffarber, who also had five turnovers.

Junior Trevor Mbakwe finished with 18 points and 15 rebounds in his first start since Jan. 9. Colton Iverson scored all of his 15 points in the second half and grabbed seven rebounds to help carry the Gophers to their fourth straight victory.

Head coach Tubby Smith had numerous lineup options as the Gophers looked to replace Nolen, who broke his foot during SaturdayâÄôs game at Michigan and had surgery Wednesday. Nolen joined his team on the bench during the first half after what Smith said was a successful surgery.

Instead of giving the starting nod to one of three freshmen guards, Smith chose to go big. The 6-foot-4 Hoffarber started at point guard, 6-foot-7 Rodney Williams was the shooting guard and Mbakwe, Iverson and Ralph Sampson âÄî 6-8, 6-10 and 6-11, respectively âÄî rounded out the starting five.

âÄúI thought we did a very good job, especially with the new lineup,âÄù Smith said.

The Gophers used that added size to attack the Wildcats down low early and often. On the night they earned 46 free throws even though they made just 31.

After mounting a 10-8 lead, the Gophers went on a 19-8 run that included two dunks by Mbakwe and a monster slam by Williams, who dunked over NorthwesternâÄôs Drew Crawford after leaping from outside the paint.

But trailing 29-16, Crawford hit back-to-back three-pointers for the Wildcats, who began to battle back. Using an 11-0 run, Northwestern cut the deficit to two, and when Alex Marcotullio hit a three-pointer with seven seconds left in the half, the Wildcats took a 34-33 lead into the break.

âÄúWe definitely wanted to come back on fire and jump on them early,âÄù Sampson said of the halftime message in the locker room.

Iverson heeded the advice. After a scoreless first half, he scored the GophersâÄô first seven points of the second half, giving them a 40-37 lead. Then Mbakwe converted a three-point play, Hoffarber hit a three-pointer, and Iverson made two more free throws to give the Gophers a 48-39 lead.

But CrawfordâÄôs hot shooting had the Wildcats clawing back yet again. His fifth three-pointer of the game âÄî he finished with 15 points âÄî cut the Gophers lead to 53-50, but the Wildcats never got any closer.

âÄúThey were just too big and physical for us,âÄù Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody said, adding that he was impressed with the backcourt play of Hoffarber and Williams.

The Wildcats started using a 1-3-1 zone midway through the first half that caused some problems, but the Gophers still finished the game shooting 53.3 percent from the field. MinnesotaâÄôs 2-3 zone worked for most of the night, as the Wildcats shot 37.5 percent.

Freshman Austin Hollins was the only player to come off the bench in the second half, and he finished with all 10 of the GophersâÄô bench points. Fellow freshmen Maverick Ahanmisi and Chip Armelin played only a combined 11 minutes.

âÄúWithout the veteran point guard IâÄôve got to be careful when I put [the freshmen] in,âÄù Smith.

Upcoming matchups will dictate the GophersâÄô starting lineup, Smith said. But if the Gophers were looking for a glimmer of hope after NolenâÄôs injury, the big lineup provided just that.

âÄúTonight was definitely a test for us coming in and playing all together,âÄù said Sampson, who finished with 14 points, âÄúbut I think we passed it.âÄù

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