Minnesota outlasts Northwestern in tight game

Carlie Wagner became the ninth player to reach 1,500 career points for the Gophers in Monday’s contest.

Gophers guard Carlie Wagner runs with the ball against Florida State on Nov. 30, 2016 at Williams Arena.

Carter Jones

Gophers guard Carlie Wagner runs with the ball against Florida State on Nov. 30, 2016 at Williams Arena.

Dominic Davis

With 3:17 left on the clock, pressure was put on Kenisha Bell. Minnesota was up by seven points over Northwestern when the guard would truly be tested at the free-throw line.

Bell was sent to the line for 10 attempts in the final few minutes. She made all but one free throw and hit a jumper to score 11 points for the Gophers to ensure the win. Her teammates kept her composed as she took multiple walks to line in a close game.

“Having the team on my back and by my side the whole time,” Bell said. “They were always in my ear saying, ‘You’ve got this, you’ve got this.’ Having that kind of positivity helped me to maintain my focus and keep myself poised.”

Bell’s impressive showing late in the game led her side at home to a 71-61 win against Northwestern on Monday.

Second halves haven’t always gone well for Minnesota this season. The Gophers have had trouble holding onto leads, but this time it was different.

The Gophers played with an intensity that has been missing at times this season.

“This game I looked into everybody’s eyes, and everybody was hungry and everybody wanted to come out in that fourth quarter and really take over,” Carlie Wagner said. “We gave it everything we had.”

Head coach Marlene Stollings was impressed with how her team responded to Northwestern’s big run.

The Wildcats scored eight unanswered points to start the third quarter. They eventually found themselves in front, but Minnesota didn’t shy away from battling until the end.

“One of the things I said in the locker room is, ‘How great can we be? How great can we be?’” Stollings said. “When you don’t let [the opposition’s intensity] impact you negatively and you respond . . . this is the first time all year we’ve responded in the third or fourth quarter this way.”

The Gophers are full of confidence. This is the first time they have won back-to-back games since December. Minnesota is playing better basketball with the Big Ten Tournament a few games away.

“I feel like we can make a nice run and we’re peaking at the right time,” Wagner said. “I’m seeing a lot of good things happen that are effecting how we play.”

Wagner bounced back from her shooting slump to provide Minnesota with the scoring they need to contend with the tougher teams in the conference.

She exploded for 16 points in the first half, just two points shy of her total from the last two games combined.

“I wanted to be aggressive and try to find openings to get me back into my rhythm to find my shot again,” Wagner said. “Whitney [Tinjum] hit early too which was huge. I thought we were really aggressive on offense and hit out plays and set good screens.”

Wagner and Tinjum scored Minnesota’s first 18 points in the game.

Northwestern was down 34-22 at halftime, but would find its way back in the game with an important run to start the third quarter.

“We were just a little more patient offensively,” Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown said. “We got better shots, we came out with a lot of fire. Nia [Coffey] was able to get some easier looks where she didn’t have a lot of traffic around her.”

Coffey made a huge impact for Northwestern. The Minneapolis native scored 33 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the contest to give the Wildcats a chance to take the game.

Stollings recognized they needed to slow down Coffey. The key was rebounding.

“[Rebounding] really was the difference in the run in the third quarter,” Stollings said. “We started getting a body on her and we didn’t let her fly in there in the fourth quarter as easily and get those rebounds.”