U gets at least one more game

Tim Klobuchar

CHICAGO — Anyone who watched the first-ever game of the first-ever Big Ten men’s basketball tournament Thursday afternoon — and judging by the vast expanse of empty seats in the cavernous United Center, there weren’t too many — probably reminisced at least once of the good old days when the end of the regular season was the end of the Big Ten season.
The Gophers beat Northwestern 64-56 in a game that didn’t exactly deliver the exciting brand of basketball promised by the much-anticipated tournament. While this mediocre match-up of No. 8 and No. 9 seeds, filled with long scoring droughts and bricked free throws, wasn’t the best way for the Big Ten to kick off its new postseason extravaganza, the game served a purpose for Minnesota besides extending its season for at least one more day.
By playing a half mostly devoid of the emotion and intensity expected in a do-or-die game, the thin, hurting Gophers (14-14) might have saved a large enough energy reservoir to make a run today at the tournament’s No. 1 seed, Michigan State.
“I don’t know what it was,” Gophers forward Miles Tarver said. “We just came out slow. I don’t know if it was because it was the early game or what. But for some reason it took us 20 minutes to find our enthusiasm.
“Michigan State is going to force us to wake up a lot earlier. They like to play like a track meet. They want to push the ball down every time.”
The Gophers, after proving in Saturday’s win against the Wildcats (10-17) that they could pressure their guards into poor decisions, did not press in the first half. Northwestern took advantage and held a 30-27 lead at halftime. Only a few minutes into the second half, when they fell behind by eight points and were in legitimate danger of losing, did the Gophers re-install the press.
It worked, as Minnesota forced a few turnovers and held the Wildcats to just one field goal in the last 12:10 of the game. The Gophers outscored Northwestern 20-9 in that stretch to pull away.
Quincy Lewis, who led Minnesota with a season-high 25 points, hit a three-pointer from the left wing with 3:30 left to give the Gophers the lead for good at 54-51. Lewis and Sam Jacobson combined for 48 of Minnesota’s 64 points and were among only four Gophers players to score a point in the game.
Without that type of production from those two, the Gophers obviously would’ve been in trouble. It was equally important, though, that they found a way to slow down Northwestern brute Evan Eschmeyer, who scored 55 points in the teams’ first two meetings. He did score 23 Thursday on 8-of-12 shooting from the field, but was held in check during the crucial second-half stretch. Minnesota coach Clem Haskins gave most of the credit for that to Tarver.
“Miles Tarver, in the last 10 minutes of the ballgame, did a whale of a job on Evan Eschmeyer,” Haskins said. “(Eschmeyer) is one of the best centers not only in our conference, but the whole country.”
Of course, if Eschmeyer had done as well from the free throw line as he did from the field, the result could’ve been different — and Tarver’s name might never have been mentioned.
Eschmeyer, a 62 percent foul shooter, hit just seven of his 15 attempts from the line, and missed four in the last 12 minutes. The Wildcats made just 15 of their 29 free throw attempts overall.
“Any time you shoot 15-of-29 from the free throw line, you sure can’t win games,” Northwestern coach Kevin O’Neill said. “We missed 14 free throws. That’s the story of the game right there.”
Another story was how the Gophers used Thursday’s game to acquaint themselves with a postseason atmosphere much different than the one they experienced during their Final Four run last year. While the Gophers still face a win-or-go-home scenario, there’s decidedly less pressure on them to keep this season alive. Every extra game they play now is a bonus.
“It’s no pressure,” Harris said. “Once you play in the Final Four, everything else doesn’t really affect you. We don’t face any pressure coming in here. We just know we’re the underdogs and we’ve got nothing to lose.”
And maybe an upset to gain. After most of the players had cleared out of the locker room after the win, Haskins noticed Tarver was still dressing.
The coach addressed him regarding the job he did on Eschmeyer, but he could just as well have been talking about today’s game, a game that could make this disappointing season much more palatable.
“Are you hungry, Miles?” Haskins asked. When Tarver answered yes, Haskins said, “You should be.”

Note: Junior guard Kevin Clark played despite a painful hip pointer. He suffered the injury in practice Feb. 26. He plays with a brace, and might get a shot of Novocaine before today’s game. Clark said the Gophers plan to run a variety of defenses at Michigan State, maybe even the box-and-one, in which he usually shadows a team’s most dangerous guard — in this case Mateen Cleaves, the Big Ten Player of the Year. “If I have the assignment of chasing him,” Clark said, “then I’ll chase him.”

WEDNESDAY’S SUMMARY
Northwestern 30 26 — 56
Gophers 27 37 — 64

Northwestern (10-17)
Harmsen 0-0 0-0 0, Branch 3-8 0-0 6, E. Eschmeyer 8-15 7-15 23, Bonner 3-6 3-4 11, Wink 1-9 0-0 3, Harris 4-6 5-10 13, Pomeday 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 19-42 15-29 56.
Gophers (14-14)
Jacobson 8-14 6-9 23, Lewis 11-17 0-2 25, Sanden 0-1 0-0 0, Clark 2-6 0-0 5, Harris 2-7 7-8 11, Broxsie 0-0 0-0 0, Nathaniel 0-2 0-0 0, Jason Stanford 0-0 0-0 0, Jermaine Stanford 0-0 0-0 0, Tarver 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 23-48 13-19 64.
3-Point goals — Northwestern 3-13 (Bonner 2-3, Wink 1-8, Harris 0-1, Pomeday 0-1), Minnesota 5-13 (Jacobson 1-3, Lewis 3-5, Clark 1-3, Harris 0-2).
Fouled Out — None.
Rebounds — Northwestern 32 (E. Eschmeyer 10), Minnesota 29 (Lewis 8).
Assists — Northwestern 11 (Bonner 4), Minnesota 14 (Harris 4).
Total fouls — Northwestern 17, Minnesota 22.