Northwestern hands Gophers third straight loss

Minnesota committed 21 turnovers as it struggled against the Wildcats’ 1-3-1 zone.

Charlie Armitz

Being an NCAA tournament bubble team is nothing new for Minnesota and Northwestern. The two teams have made a recent habit of producing disappointing seasons, and thus, each has faced late-season games on which their tournament hopes have rested.

On Saturday in Evanston, Ill., Northwestern played like a team with its season on the line.

The Gophers played like a team that had given up on the latest disappointing season under Tubby Smith’s tenure.

Minnesota (5-9 Big Ten) committed 21 turnovers in a 64-53 defeat to the Wildcats (6-8) — the Gophers’ third consecutive loss and fourth in five games.

“I thought Northwestern just outplayed us, made shots,” Smith said. “We didn’t share the ball well at all; we didn’t embrace [the pressure].”

Northwestern stifled Minnesota with its 1-3-1 trap zone defense while executing a smooth, perimeter-oriented offense throughout the game.

“We had a tough time attacking the 1-3-1,” Smith said. “It was because of their defense that [they] gave us all kinds of problems.”

Saturday wasn’t the first time a zone defense has caused the Gophers to lose to a team with less talent. On two separate occasions earlier this season, Minnesota blew double-digit leads to lowly Iowa after the Hawkeyes switched to a zone defense.

This time, Minnesota never gave itself a chance to gain a lead, as it played poor defense from start to finish.

The Wildcats made 10 shots from long range, including four from Dave Sobolewski, who led all scorers with 22 points.

John Shurna made three 3-pointers and had 18 points, passing Billy McKinney to become Northwestern’s all-time leading scorer with 1,902 points.

“Shurna’s a good player. Good players will find a way,” Smith said. “If you have one miscue or make a mistake defensively, he’ll burn you.”

That’s exactly what Shurna did after the Gophers shut him down for the first 16 minutes. The conference’s leading scorer in 2011-12 lit up Minnesota for 12 consecutive points to end the half, giving the Wildcats a 36-28 lead.

By the time he cooled down in the second half, the Gophers were in free-fall mode, committing sloppy turnovers, frustration fouls and lax defensive plays that gave Northwestern open looks on nearly every possession.

On one play, Julian Welch made a soft pass out of the zone that Northwestern intercepted. Then, Welch sulked at midcourt for two seconds while his man, Drew Crawford, raced past him for an alley-oop dunk.

Despite their 41-20 rebounding edge, the Gophers lacked discipline and aggression for most of the game. They forced just 10 Wildcats turnovers and had only fast-break points.

It was a sharp contrast to Minnesota’s 75-52 home win against Northwestern a month ago, when it dominated the Wildcats in every facet of the game.

Welch had a team-high 21 points on 5-for-10 shooting from long range, but his teammates were 0-for-7 from beyond the arc.

Minnesota had little luck in the paint also, as it missed multiple layups from point-blank range and committed several offensive fouls.

Northwestern’s zone seemed to make the Gophers’ inside troubles worse. The Wildcats frequently denied Minnesota the opportunity to post up its forwards and exploit its size advantage.

Smith tried to expose that size advantage early when he started forward Oto Osenieks in place of guard Andre Hollins.

But Osenieks and Hollins combined to shoot just 2-for-8 from the field while committing eight fouls.

Rodney Williams, who had scored 37 points in his last two games, looked on pace for another solid game when he scored six points in the first 10 minutes. But his aggression waned once he faced the zone, and he finished with nine points, one assist and five turnovers.

One bright spot for Minnesota was the play of Joe Coleman. The freshman had 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting after being held scoreless for his past four games.

Still, the loss puts a serious damper in the Gophers’ NCAA tournament chances. To make the tournament, Minnesota would likely have to win three of its last four Big Ten games or win the Big Ten tournament.