It’s always difficult to beat a team three times in the same season. Thursday night in the opening round of the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse Minnesota found out just how tricky it can be.
The Golden Gophers swept their season series with Northwestern and made it look easy in the process, winning by an average of nearly 20 points in the two previous matchups.
But Thursday night Minnesota needed a huge lift from senior Dan Coleman down the stretch to get over the hump as the Gophers eked out a 55-52 victory and advanced to a quarterfinal matchup with No. 4 seed Indiana.
In addition to Coleman’s 16 points, Lawrence Westbrook also stepped up to provide some second-half heroics, scoring 11 of his career-high 17 points, including nine straight for Minnesota (19-12) during a stretch of the second period when the Gophers made a huge push to tie the game.
Lawrence McKenzie chipped in with 13 points as well for Minnesota, which trailed by as many as 16 points in the first half before roaring back for its sixth opening-round victory in the 11 years of the Big Ten Tournament.
Craig Moore scored 15 points to lead Northwestern (8-22), which dropped its fourth in a row to the Gophers. Kevin Coble and Michael Thompson added 13 each for the Wildcats, who failed to win a game in the Big Ten tournament for the third straight year.
Still, Northwestern had the Gophers on the ropes for much of Thursday night’s battle until Minnesota wrapped a 10-0 run around halftime to get back into the game, slicing a 16-point deficit down to six less than two minutes into the second half.
Thompson broke the Gophers’ surge with one of his three 3-pointers, pushing Northwestern’s lead back to nine points, but Minnesota responded with a 14-5 run that included nine in a row by Westbrook to tie the game at 42-42 with 12:29 to play.
The hot shooting wouldn't last for Minnesota, however, as the Gophers missed their next eight shots and went 7:29 without scoring before McKenzie made a pair of free throws with five minutes left to make it 47-44 Wildcats.
Minnesota also stepped up its defense down the stretch, forcing Northwestern into turnovers on three straight possessions.
Coleman then scored on back-to-back plays to give the Gophers their first lead of the game since the McKenzie’s opening basket. After a driving layup that pulled the Gophers within a point, the senior stepped in front of a Thompson pass and took it in for a thundering dunk that gave Minnesota a 48-47 lead.
Moore’s 3-pointer put the Wildcats back ahead 52-51 with 2:34 to play. But the Wildcats would not score again. Coble missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 1:20 left, and Coleman sealed Minnesota’s victory when he wrapped Williams up on the baseline, forcing a turnover with four seconds left.
Coleman was then fouled and he made both free throws to seal the victory and a date with Indiana in the quarterfinals.
Minnesota scored the first points of the game on a layup by McKenzie, but the rest of the first half belonged to Northwestern.
The Wildcats scored 12 of the next 15 points, including seven by Coble, to take a 12-5 lead.
A 3-pointer by McKenzie briefly calmed the storm, but the Gophers committed three turnovers and went scoreless over the ensuing five minutes. Northwestern, meanwhile, used a 9-0 run to increase its advantage to double digits and led 21-9 midway through the period.
The Gophers briefly sliced the Wildcats’ lead back to single digits behind a jumper by Westbrook and a layup by Blake Hoffarber.
But Northwestern, which shot a scalding 65 percent in the first half, immediately push its lead back to twin figures on a 3-pointer by Thompson.
The Wildcats’ lead would grow to as many as 16 with 2:26 remaining in the half before Westbrook connected from beyond the arc to make it 34-21 at the break.
Minnesota will face No. 3 seed Indiana Friday night at 9 p.m. (ET)/8 p.m. (CT). The game will be televised by the Big Ten Network.