Minn. survives scare and advances to play Indiana

The Gophers were down by as much as 16 during the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

Zach Eisendrath

.INDIANAPOLIS – After a midseason loss, Minnesota men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith said his team is like Dr. Jekyll at one moment and Mr. Hyde at another.

The Gophers brought their multiple personalities – the good and the bad – to their first-round matchup at the Big Ten tournament Thursday evening.

Fortunately for coach Tubby Smith and staff, the bad was early and the good was late, as Minnesota survived a scare from Big Ten bottom-feeder Northwestern before disposing of the 11th-seeded Wildcats 55-52 at Conseco Fieldhouse.

“That first game is always a challenge in any tournament,” Smith said, whose team had to play the majority of the game without senior center Spencer Tollackson after he tweeked an ankle three minutes into the contest. “I thought our kids showed a lot of courage and a lot of heart to overcome some things in the first half.”

One minute Minnesota had its back to the wall, down its greatest deficit of the year: 16. The next, the Gophers were talking about a second-round matchup with third-seeded Indiana.

Fitting for a team that opened the second half on a 21-8 run to get back into a game they trailed in for the last 19 minutes of the second half, then nearly proceeded not to capitalize on its comeback attempt, going without a field goal for nearly eight minutes.

And the same team that came out flat to start the game and trailed 47-42 with nine minutes left looked re-energized with 10 minutes remaining in the second half and finished the game on a 13-5 run – highlighted by a breakaway dunk from senior forward Dan Coleman and a late three-pointer by freshman guard Blake Hoffarber.

“We caught a second wind,” said sophomore guard Lawrence Westbrook, who almost single-handedly diminished the Gophers’ double-digit halftime deficit by scoring 11 of his game-high 17 points in the second half.

Westbrook hit a three-pointer to tie the game with 12:25 left to go, but Minnesota wouldn’t score again until the five-minute mark when senior guard Lawrence McKenzie connected on a pair of free throws.

A layup by Coleman put the Gophers ahead 53-52 with 1:36 left, but the game was still hanging in the balance until the final buzzer when Northwestern guard Craig Moore missed a three-point attempt.

Next up for the Gophers: third-seeded Indiana, which Minnesota played in Bloomington nine days ago.

“We just played them recently, so they are fresh in our minds,” Coleman said. “We really want this game.”

Noteworthy

Northwestern forward Kevin Coble scored all 13 of his points in the first half. Moore led the Wildcats with 15.