Northwestern is the free buffet line for the rest of the Big Ten.
After what seemed like an eternity of eligibility, Wildcats coach Kevin O’Neill lost Evan Eschmeyer to graduation. The departed center, who single-handedly carried the Wildcats last season, left O’Neill with four freshman and one sophomore in this season’s starting lineup.
To add further insult to ineptitude, the Wildcats had the most-enviable task of playing Michigan State twice in a row before coming to Williams Arena on Saturday.
Northwestern (4-15, 0-7 Big Ten) scared most of the 13,842 fans in attendance at The Barn on Saturday, but the Gophers sloshed their way through a less-than-riveting performance. Minnesota won 69-60.
The Gophers can finally bid adieu to its four-game losing streak, while the Wildcats have lost 10 in a row.
O’Neill, who voiced his blatant displeasure with the officiating throughout the game, waited until after the game to chew out the Big Ten schedule-makers and referees.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous to play Thursday night at home and at 11:22 (a.m. Saturday) on the road,” O’Neill said. “When you have a whole year to put a schedule together, you might be able to find maybe a little better way of putting two games together. Then again, that doesn’t matter because (the schedule-maker) is sitting in Chicago. He doesn’t give a damn about kids traveling.”
Despite the travel woes, Northwestern’s abundant youth had more than one chance to get themselves an upset.
A modest 5-1 spree in the last two minutes of the first half gave the Gophers a 30-23 lead at halftime. Back-to-back dunks by Joel Przybilla and John-Blair Bickerstaff opened the second half and pushed the lead to 11.
It was 43-26 after another Przybilla jam, but the Wildcats slowly whittled the lead away over the next 12 minutes. Sophomore forward Steve Lepore (17 points) got Northwestern within 57-52 on a three-pointer.
But, things could have been even closer if the officials had woken up on the other side of the bed. Two questionable no-calls on Przybilla got under O’Neill’s skin.
“I didn’t know they didn’t call goaltending in Minnesota; I really didn’t,” he said. “I thought if the ball was in the rim, it was supposed to be a goaltend. I guess not.”
But failed execution and Minnesota free throws kept the lead at seven the rest of the way.
“We wanted to blow them out, but that’s not going to happen,” said junior guard Mitch Ohnstad, who led the Gophers with 18 points on 5-for-7 shooting. “That’s the nature of the Big Ten. Every game is going to be a tough game no matter who you play. They hold the score down, and it’s a tough team to blow out. You’re not going to be able run them out of the gym; they don’t let you. They play ball control and tough defense.”
The Gophers didn’t win because they made all their free throws (62 percent), but they made just enough in the last five minutes (10 of 18) to keep Northwestern at bay. Minnesota took 42 free throws compared to Northwestern’s 16.
“When you get outshot 42-16 at the line, I think something’s wrong,” O’Neill said. “I don’t give a damn where you’re playing. We didn’t get to the line as much as we needed to, and they got there every time.”
An otherwise lethargically paced game was given a small jolt when junior center/forward Kyle Sanden checked into the game with 9:06 remaining in the first half. The 6-foot-11 Sanden had been academically ineligible to play under Big Ten rules, but he was officially eligible by Thursday.
Sanden received a nice ovation from the crowd upon his entrance. He struggled (four turnovers, three fouls) in nine minutes of action, but he also had three rebounds, an assist and a steal.
More importantly for Minnesota, its co-captain was back on the floor.
Coach Dan Monson called Sanden’s play “rusty.” But what do you expect from a guy who hasn’t played all season?
“I practiced, but it’s a lot different going into a game,” Sanden said. “(The crowd) made me feel real welcome. After that, I didn’t feel nervous or any pressure at all.”
For now, the pressure is off Sanden and the Gophers, but with two games against Illinois, plus Wisconsin and Indiana in the next two weeks, Minnesota would have loved a blowout.
The Gophers got the win they had to have, but this was probably their last feast at the buffet.
“This is the third or fourth time these young men have had an opportunity to put someone away and haven’t,” Monson said. “When you look at the scope, that’s not a ton of experience of having a lead and being able to put someone away.
“This is the second time — Iowa was the first time — in Big Ten competition. We’re 0 for 2 in putting people away, but we’re also 2 for 2 in winning those games.”
Mark Heller covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]