EVANSTON, Ill. — If anyone thought the Gophers men’s basketball team’s 58-51 win at Northwestern wasn’t going to be a dog fight, they were proven wrong immediately.
Heck, it took eight seconds for somebody to take possession of the game’s opening jump ball. But even the smallest of battles mean more come tournament time.
The Wildcats (14-12, 6-10 in the Big Ten) needed the game to end a five-game losing streak and send sixth-year senior Evan Eschmeyer out with a win.
Minnesota (17-9, 8-8) needed the game to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive and earn a decent seed in the upcoming Big Ten tournament in Chicago.
Both teams scratched, clawed and hacked their way through, but it was the Gophers’ hustle and rebounding determination that ultimately toppled Northwestern and gave Minnesota its third win in four games.
Quincy Lewis scored a game-high 31 points, and Kevin Clark added 12 points to go with 10 rebounds as the Gophers out-rebounded the Wildcats 35-26 and held them to a season-low 13 made field goals.
Some collapsing interior defense on Eschmeyer allowed Minnesota to hold the 6-foot-11 center to just five rebounds and maintain a 14-5 edge on the offensive glass.
“We emphasized getting offensive boards,” Gophers coach Clem Haskins said. “Loose balls, long rebounds, short rebounds — all the little things gave us the opportunity to win tonight.”
But it was the spark provided by a Clark three-pointer at the end of the first half which cut Northwestern’s lead to 30-28. The Gophers came out of the locker room on fire with Quincy Lewis leading the way.
Lewis scored six straight points in the first 72 seconds of the second half to give Minnesota a four-point lead, a lead it would never relinquish.
“We didn’t want to start the second half out like we did the first half — having them go on a big run and then us having to fight and claw our way back,” Lewis said of Northwestern’s early 11-2 lead. “We wanted to come out and take control.”
Clark said the nine straight points bridged by halftime were a key to shifting the momentum of the game.
“When I caught it there was like four or five seconds left,” Clark said of his three-pointer, “and when I shot it, it slipped out of my hands. But when I looked at it, it had perfect rotation — it was a high one, a real rainbow — and it just went in.
“That closed the lead to two, and when Quincy came out and scored those quick six, it gave us the lead and we never looked back.”
The Gophers might not have looked back, but they were sure checking out Eschmeyer and his cohorts in their rearview mirror, riding the bumper all game long.
Gophers forward Miles Tarver’s tip-in with 6:19 left in the game gave Minnesota a 47-39 lead, but five straight points on a three-pointer from David Newman and two of Eschmeyer’s 17 made free throws closed the gap to three.
But Lewis held them off when he scored nine of his team’s final 11 points to secure the win and elicit “MVP, MVP” chants from the 100 or so Gophers fans who were at the game.
The biggest points came with the shot clock down to two seconds with 1:12 left to play, when Lewis buried a three-pointer to give the Gophers a seven-point lead.
“We ran the clock down and we just wanted to get a good shot,” Lewis said. “Kevin had the ball and he made a move but couldn’t get it, so he kicked it out to me, and I just put it up and hoped if I missed we could get the rebound.”
But the red-hot Lewis made the shot, icing the game and strengthening the Gophers argument for an NCAA bid.
However, the outcome down the stretch didn’t go by without some tense moments in the final minute. Gophers point guard Kevin Nathaniel twice missed the front end of one-and-ones with the lead down to five.
Then with 28.2 seconds left, Nathaniel was fouled again, but this time he sunk both foul shots after Lewis gave him some advice on his technique.
“He put the first two off the back of the iron, so I told him to scoot back from the line a little bit,” Lewis said. “Sometimes you get all worked up and the adrenaline is pumping, and I told him to take that same stroke, but just scoot back a little bit and he stroked it.”
With Lewis’ help, Nathaniel said he was positive he would make the next two.
“Yeah, he had to tell me to move back a couple of inches, and that’s when I told Joel (Przybilla), `I guarantee these next two are going in,'” Nathaniel said.
Nathaniel put both in, and in all likelihood helped put the Gophers in the NCAA tournament.
Northwestern 30 21 51Minnesota 28 30 58
MINNESOTALewis 10-23 8-8 31, Tarver 1-4 0-0 2, Przybilla 2-6 0-0 4, Clark 5-12 0-1 12, Nathaniel 2-4 2-4 6, Ohnstad 1-3 0-0 3, Broxsie 0-0 0-0 0, Rychart 0-0 0-0 0, 0-1 0-0 0, Aune 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-53 (39.6 percent) 10-13 (76.9 percent) 58. Three-pointers 6-11 (Lewis 3-6, Clark 2-3, Ohnstad 1-2), Rebounds 35 (Clark 10), Assists 14 (Nathaniel 6), Blocks 2 (Tarver, Broxsie), Steals 4 (Lewis 2). Fouls 23. Fouled out — Sanden.
NORTHWESTERNLepore 1-4 0-0 3, Hardy 2-4 2-5 6, Eschmeyer 5-11 17-21 27, Bonner 1-8 0-0 3, Newman 1-4 2-3 5, Harmsen 0-0 0-0 0, Allouche 0-0 0-0 0, Wink 0-0 1-2 3, Molnar 3-4 0-0 6. Totals 13-35 (37.1 percent) 22-31 (71 percent) 51. Three pointers 3-12 (Bonner 1-5, Lepore 1-4, Newman 1-3), Rebounds 26 (Eschmeyer 5), Assists 11 (Bonner 4), Blocks 5 (Eschmeyer, Molnar 2), Steals 3 (Eschmeyer 2). Fouls 17. Fouled out — Bonner.