Fresh Gophers outlast ‘Cats

Blake Hoffarber and Lawrence Westbrook carried Minnesota to a win over Northwestern.

Marco LaNave

Tubby Smith said Monday that the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team might have been brought down by fatigue in its upset attempt against Michigan State last weekend. On Tuesday, the head coach rested his starters more in the second half and saw it pay off in a 65-61 win over Northwestern at Williams Arena. âÄúI thought that was the key to us getting the win tonight: getting those guys rest at key times,âÄù Smith said. After playing a total of seven minutes against Michigan State on Saturday, Minnesota bench players contributed 34 minutes in the second half. Even though they didnâÄôt score, they gave the starters enough rest to pull out the tight win âÄî a rarity so far this season. Junior guard Blake Hoffarber played a team-leading 32 minutes and scored 11 of his game-high 20 points in the final five minutes. He said that the whole team is stronger when the bench can contribute. âÄúWhen those guys give us a lift âĦ it definitely tires the other team, and we come back in with fresh legs,âÄù Hoffarber said. Northwestern hit four of its first six 3-point attempts and seven of its first 11 field goals to take an 18-12 lead in the first seven minutes. MinnesotaâÄôs bench players entered with 11:40 remaining in the half and closed the deficit to 18-16. The Gophers had a chance to tie it when Northwestern committed four fouls on a single possession, but they couldnâÄôt capitalize and had to settle for trading 3-pointers. The starters came back trailing 21-19, and the refreshed team went on a 12-2 run to take the lead. Senior guard Lawrence Westbrook found senior forward Damian Johnson open under the basket for the tying basket and then stole the ball on NorthwesternâÄôs end. Moments later, he drilled a go-ahead 3-pointer from the corner off of a pass from Hoffarber. Westbrook had 10 points and four assists in the first half. After trailing, 33-25, at halftime, the Wildcats came back with strong outside shooting and a tough 1-3-1 zone defense that forced nine second-half turnovers by the Gophers. Wildcats forward John Shurna scored the first 11 points of the second half for Northwestern. He hit a free throw to cap a 21-8 run and give the Wildcats their only second-half lead at 49-48 with 5:08 remaining. That came moments after the Gophers put all of their starters on the floor to close the game. They responded on the next possession as Westbrook found Hoffarber, who had to shake a defender before making a go-ahead 3-point field goal with 4:44 remaining. Johnson blocked ShurnaâÄôs ensuing 3-point attempt, and Hoffarber hit another one on the next trip down to make it 54-49. But the Wildcats wouldnâÄôt go away, and Hoffarber had to make another 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to make it 59-54 with 2:30 to play. The Wildcats closed it to a one-possession game four times in the final 3:12, but the Gophers survived when Hoffarber and Westbrook each hit a pair of free throws. Westbrook finished with 18 points and led the team with six assists. Despite missing junior point guard Al Nolen for the second-straight game, the Gophers had 20 assists, including one on each of their last seven field goals of the game. âÄú[Nolen] really pushes me in practiceâĦto make me a better player. We knew with him going out we were going to have to step it up,âÄù Westbrook said.