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On the road, another lead evaporates

Minnesota’s NCAA chances may have evaporated as well; the Gophers led by 10 midway through the second half, but Northwestern finished the game on an 18-4 run to pull away late.

EVANSTON, Ill. âÄî Grab a lead in the second half, lose focus and watch the season slip away.

ItâÄôs becoming the common trend of the Minnesota menâÄôs basketball team.

In another must-win game, the Gophers opened a double-digit second-half lead only to watch their opponent make a late run and turn their dreams of a third-straight NCAA tournament bid into a nightmare.

After Minnesota opened a 41-31 lead with 13 minutes, 14 seconds to play, Northwestern mounted an 18-4 run and never looked back, dropping the Gophers, 68-57, Wednesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Minnesota (17-12, 6-11 Big Ten) has lost four in a row and eight of nine after stirring talks of a Sweet 16 run earlier this season.

âÄúObviously we havenâÄôt done the job getting our guys through these last few minutes of the games,âÄù Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said.

Smith said he saw the disposition of his players change when the Wildcats started to battle back. âÄúIt must be a losing demeanor,âÄù he said. âÄúWeâÄôre not making shots. WeâÄôre not executing properly. Scared, to me, is what it looks like.âÄù

Reserve guard Alex Marcotullio converted a 3-point play with 6:48 left to give Northwestern its first lead since the 8:14 mark of the first half. Then the sophomore, who scored a career-high 18 points, hit a 3-pointer to give the Wildcats their biggest lead to that point, 52-48. The Gophers never trimmed the deficit to less than 3.

âÄúI think itâÄôs just mentally people are getting fatigued,âÄù said senior guard Blake Hoffarber, who had seven rebounds, five assists but just 5 points on 2-for-9 shooting. âÄúPeople are just losing focus at the end of games.âÄù

Hoffarber was involved in what appeared to be multiple heated discussions with Smith.

âÄúAnytime youâÄôre losing like this, I think people are just trying to fire other people up, and your emotions come out,âÄù Hoffarber said.

SmithâÄôs response? âÄúIâÄôm on his ass about playing hard.âÄù

Despite freshman Maverick Ahanmisi starting at point guard, Hoffarber struggled to get open as the shooting guard. Ahanmisi finished with 7 points, but had three of the GophersâÄô 12 turnovers and shot just 3-for-10 from the field, including 1-for-6 from behind the arc.

âÄúI guess heâÄôs just not tough enough at this point in time,âÄù Smith said of Ahanmisi, âÄújust not mature enough to make those shots.âÄù

Northwestern (17-12, 7-11) hit five 3-pointers in the final 7:21 of the game, despite making only 10-of-30 for the game. Late scoring efforts from John Shurna (15 points) and senior Michael Thompson (18 points on Senior Day) helped both players overcome a poor shooting night (9-for-29 combined).

Most of the late treys came from an offensive set that Northwestern coach Bill Carmody dubbed the âÄúJVâÄù play because âÄúa JV player could figure it out.âÄù Turns out, the GophersâÄô defense couldnâÄôt.

Junior Trevor Mbakwe posted his 17th double-double of the season with 14 points and 12 rebounds, eight of which came in the first half. The smaller Wildcats out-rebounded Minnesota 17-13 in the second half.

After SundayâÄôs game against Penn State, the Gophers must hope to make a deep run in next weekâÄôs Big Ten tournament if they want any chance to advance to the Big Dance. They might even have to win it to earn an automatic bid.

âÄúWe play every team in the conference tough, so weâÄôve just got to go in there with our confidence high âĦ and forget the past like itâÄôs a new season,âÄù Mbakwe said.

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