Gophers blow big lead, fall to ‘Cats

Minnesota led by as many as 13 in the second half before losing in overtime.

Marco LaNave

EVANSTON, Ill. -âÄî The story keeps replaying itself during the 2009-10 Gophers menâÄôs basketball season. Near the end of games, Minnesota has struggled to put away its opponent, especially away from home. In the closing minutes of Sunday afternoonâÄôs game at Northwestern, it seemed the Gophers were fighting the weight of a season-long trend in addition to their college basketball counterparts. The Gophers blew a 13-point second-half lead, rallied to force overtime and ultimately lost to Northwestern 77-74 Sunday at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Minnesota (14-10, 5-7 Big Ten) suffered its seventh loss by seven points or fewer. âÄúThey all are tough,âÄù Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said after the game. That fact probably wonâÄôt make it any easier for the Gophers to look back on their seventh loss in their last 10 games. Northwestern (17-8, 6-7) went on a 10-0 run in a span of 2:04 to take the lead. Wildcats center Luka Mirkovic hit one of his teamâÄôs 13 3-point field goals to give his team a 53-52 lead with 3:07 to play in regulation. âÄúWe called timeout about two or three times to try to calm the players down,âÄù Smith said. âÄúBut once that momentum switches like that and they get energized and get the crowd back in it, it’s tough.âÄù The Gophers trailed 57-54 before junior guard Blake Hoffarber hit his first shot of the day on a 3-point field goal with 18.5 seconds remaining in regulation. Hoffarber missed his first five 3-pointers of the game, but after senior guard Lawrence Westbrook, who scored 22 points, missed from the corner, senior forward Damian Johnson grabbed the rebound and found Hoffarber open in the opposite corner to force overtime. âÄúOnce we were in overtime, it felt like we could win the game,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúBut [the Wildcats] had some things go their way, and that helped them out.âÄù After Hoffarber hit a 3-pointer to give Minnesota a 62-59 lead in overtime, Wildcats guard Michael Thompson responded with a 3-pointer. Two-straight steals led to layups that gave Northwestern a 66-62 advantage, and they never looked back. Until midway through the second half, the Gophers, who couldnâÄôt seem to muster any energy against Michigan last Thursday, showed as much fight as they have in any Big Ten road game this season. Minnesota made six of its first eight 3-point attempts, including three by sophomore guard Devoe Joseph , who finished with 16 points, all coming in the first half and overtime. âÄúAfter the Michigan game, I pointed out that we need a lot more energy,âÄù Joseph said. âÄúWe need to look like we want to win.âÄù Junior forward Paul Carter scored nine-straight points to give the Gophers a 26-15 lead with 7:30 remaining before halftime and later carried a 32-24 lead into halftime. Wildcats forward John Shurna got his team going by making 5-of-8 3-point shots in the second half, including three straight to cut it to 35-33 with 16:06 remaining in the second half. Minnesota responded with eight straight points, including the first baskets of the game by Johnson and sophomore center Ralph Sampson III . Sampson made one of two free throws to extend the lead to 48-35 with 8:01 remaining. But it was too good to be true. âÄúWe started âĦ losing our composure a little bit, and maybe we were a little too relaxed,âÄù Sampson said. After Sunday, there probably wonâÄôt be much relaxing the rest of the season.