As is the custom after the last game at Williams Arena every season, the Gophers men’s basketball team did a lap around the raised floor after their 59-54 win over Northwestern on Saturday, reaching down and slapping hands with thankful fans.
That’s the kind of pleasant encore the Gophers are happy to participate in.
The encore that’s much more important, however, even if it’s as dreary as Saturday’s game, is the rematch with the Wildcats on Thursday in the first round of the inaugural Big Ten tournament.
The eighth-seeded Gophers hope their next game against ninth-seeded Northwestern goes much more smoothly than it did the first time around, when they had to contend with the extra sentiment of Senior Day — the last home appearances of seniors Sam Jacobson, Eric Harris and Rob Schoenrock.
“It was a very emotional game,” said Jacobson, who didn’t exactly go out in style, scoring 14 points on 3-for-16 shooting. “We didn’t play our best, partly because of the distractions. I didn’t play well, either — I just couldn’t focus.”
While Jacobson was clearly out of rhythm from the outset, his teammates had at least one half of fairly good basketball. They held the Wildcats without a field goal for more than 11 minutes in the first half and built a 31-17 halftime lead.
Northwestern star center Evan Eschmeyer scored 20 of his game-high 24 points in the second half, but that wasn’t the biggest problem for the Gophers. They recorded just five field goals in the entire half and shot just 36 percent for the game.
“We still won, even though we didn’t play our best,” Jacobson said. “We’re looking forward to playing them again.”
Other than planning on making a few more shots, the Gophers will use the same game plan that worked well enough on Saturday: use full-court pressure to disrupt Northwestern’s shaky guards, then collapse on the 6-11 Eschmeyer.
By the time Eschmeyer got going in the second half, Minnesota already had a comfortable lead, and Northwestern didn’t have the outside shooting to complement Eschmeyer’s presence inside. Does that mean the Wildcats will change their strategy for Thursday?
“We don’t have any more than one game plan,” Northwestern coach Kevin O’Neill said. “Throw it to Eschmeyer. If (three-point specialist Sean) Wink is open, we’ll throw it to him. And that’s it.”
Said Gophers guard Eric Harris, who had another outstanding game with 20 points, four assists, five steals and no turnovers: “You’ve got to keep constant pressure on their guards and not let them get it inside easy.”
That Minnesota, which lost to Northwestern 66-59 on Jan. 7 without the injured Jacobson, was able to execute that plan well enough to win was mildly surprising because of the Gophers’ continuing personnel shortage.
Schoenrock, whose injured right ankle kept him out of the lineup against Purdue on Wednesday night, was healthy enough to start Saturday, but not to play more than six minutes. Also, 6-11 center Kyle Sanden absorbed a blow to the head in practice Thursday and was held out of the game. Gophers coach Clem Haskins said he expects Sanden to play Thursday.
Fortunately, Minnesota still had 6-10 freshman Antoine Broxsie, who played 20 minutes, scored four points and had four blocks, including two on consecutive shots by Eschmeyer in the first half.
“Without (Broxsie’s) presence on the court, we get beat,” Haskins said. “Eschmeyer got 24 points and 12 rebounds, but without Antoine maybe he gets 40 points and 30 rebounds.”
Now the teams move on to Chicago for take three of the series. Neither coach is making much of the close proximity of the matchups. O’Neill even said that because the teams already know each other so well, he’ll spend a few days recruiting.
The biggest difference might be where the game is played, and that there will likely be far fewer people on hand than the 14,519 fans who showed up at Williams on Saturday to say goodbye to the Gophers’ seniors.
“To me, it doesn’t matter,” Jacobson said of playing Northwestern again so soon. “If we stay focused, we’ll be fine. It’s always tough to play your last game at home. The next time, the emotions won’t be there, but the focus will be.”
Note: Jacobson finished third in the Big Ten with a scoring average of 19.7 points per game, behind Ohio State’s Michael Redd and Eschmeyer. Redd won the title with 22.0 points per game, becoming the first freshman ever to win the Big Ten scoring title.
SATURDAY’S SUMMARYN’western 17 37 — 54Gophers 31 28 — 59
Harmsen 2-3 0-0 4, Branch 2-7 4-4 8, Eschmeyer 8-14 8-11 24, Bonner 2-12 0-2 4, Wink 3-8 0-0 9, Harris 1-1 0-0 2, Pomeday 1-2 0-0 3, Molnar 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-47 12-17 54.
Jacobson 3-16 8-11 14, Lewis 3-16 2-2 8, Schoenrock 0-0 0-0 0, Clark 4-13 1-3 10, Harris 7-13 6-6 20, Nathaniel 0-0 0-0 0, Ja. Stanford 0-1 0-0 0, Je. Stanford 0-0 1-2 1, Broxsie 1-1 2-2 4, Tarver 0-0 2-2 2. Totals 18-50 22-28 59.
3-Point goals — Northwestern 4-15 (Wink 3-7, Pomeday 1-2, Branch 0-1, Bonner 0-5), Minnesota 1-15 (Clark 1-5, Lewis 0-1, Harris 0-4, Jacobson 0-5. Fouled out — Harmsen. Rebounds — Northwestern 35 (Eschmeyer 12), Minnesota 30 (Tarver, Broxsie, Jacobson 4). Assists — Northwestern 13 (Bonner 8), Minnesota 12 (Harris, Nathaniel 4). Total fouls — Northwestern 24, Minnesota 20. A — 14,519.