Free throws boost Gophers
MINNEAPOLIS -- Blake Hoffarber scored 20 points while playing point guard in place of Al Nolen, Trevor Mbakwe rammed his way to 18 points and 14 rebounds, and 16th-ranked Minnesota beat Northwestern 81-70 on Wednesday night.
Mbakwe got his 12th double-double of the season while matching his career high in points and moving back in the starting lineup for the first time in four games, helping the Gophers (16-4, 5-3 Big Ten) win their fourth straight despite the loss of their steady senior leader Nolen, who broke his right foot last weekend.
Colton Iverson added 15 points, Ralph Sampson III had 14 points and the Gophers started a parade to the free throw line for a season-high 46 attempts. They drew 32 fouls on the Wildcats (13-6, 3-6) and wore them out with hustle, muscle and decent passing despite a struggle to shoot from outside the lane and only eight healthy players in the rotation.
John Shurna had 16 points for Northwestern, his chin bandaged after a bad cut forced him out early in the first half. Michael Thompson led the way with 18 points and Drew Crawford had 15, all on 3-pointers, before fouling out.
The Wildcats had been just as competitive as the Gophers, losing just one non-conference game and only to opponents in the top half of the Big Ten, until they wilted in a 32-point loss at home to Wisconsin last weekend.
Crawford went scoreless in that game, and coach Bill Carmody was critical of his team's overall ability to carry out the scouting report against the disciplined Badgers.
They were on their way to being buried again, falling behind 29-16 near the 5½-minute mark of the first half after freshman Austin Hollins grabbed a rebound under the basket and flicked it as he fell out of bounds to Sampson for an easy layup. Mbakwe was too strong for the Wildcats to stop underneath, throwing down three rim-rattling dunks.
Crawford found his stroke, though, and in a span of 135 seconds the Wildcats used an 11-0 run to surge back. The Gophers didn't make a jump shot until Hoffarber's pull-up from the top of the key with 65 seconds left in the half, and they had trouble maneuvering when the Wildcats used a backcourt trap to start their 1-3-1 zone defense. Rodney Williams, who shifted to shooting guard, had plenty of passing trouble.
Alex Marcotullio made 3-pointers on both sides of the halftime break, and the Gophers suddenly trailed 37-33. But Shurna, the conference's fourth-leading scorer, lost his shot in the second half and the rest of the Wildcats went with him. The Gophers, who used a 2-3 zone defense to help compensate for the loss of Nolen on their perimeter defense, went back to their effective high-low passing game over the top of the zone and used their decided strength and size advantage inside to wear the Wildcats down.
On one highlight-reel sequence, the ball zipped between all three big men -- Iverson to Mbakwe with his back to the basket to Sampson as he dashed to the lane for a layup and a 52-44 lead.
Mbakwe struggled again at the line for the Big Ten's worst free throw shooting team, going 4 for 10, but Sampson made up for it by hitting 8 of 9 and the Gophers didn't let up down the stretch.