EVANSTON, Ill. — The Gophers likely needed a weekend split to stay in bracketologists’ NCAA tournament projections.
That’s exactly what they got when they beat Northwestern 54-48 on Sunday night in Evanston, Ill.
It was the Gophers’ second conference road win of the season and snapped a five-game losing streak on the road.
“We were tired of losing on the road,” junior guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “We knew we could do it. We just had to get out there and get after it, and we finally got one.”
Mathieu sparked the Gophers, particularly in the second half.
After he hit a 3-point shot to bring the Gophers to within three at the half, Mathieu scored 10 of his team’s first 14 second-half points. He finished the night with a team-high 18 points.
“Coach lit a fire in me at halftime,” Mathieu said. “He’s good at getting me going, even though he shouldn’t have to.”
Minnesota needed Mathieu to shovel the team out of a halftime hole it dug itself because of an array of first-half turnovers. The Gophers committed 10 turnovers in the first half and finished with 17 for the game.
Gophers head coach Richard Pitino said Northwestern did a nice job of shrinking the court, particularly when Minnesota threw the ball into the post.
“You’ve got to give them credit for that; they’re a very good defensive team,” Pitino said.
The Gophers were able to overcome their turnovers with their play on the defensive end as they put forth one of their best efforts of the season.
Minnesota held the Wildcats to an abysmal 16-for-53 (30.2 percent) shooting performance from the floor.
Northwestern star Drew Crawford — who poured in 17 points in the Wildcats’ 55-54 win over the Gophers on Feb. 1 — was held to two points on 1-for-15 shooting Sunday.
An unexpected hero on the defensive end for the Gophers was junior center Mo Walker.
Walker, who’s shined on the offensive end of late, is not known as a defensive presence. He was on Sunday, though, and he finished with three blocks and proved critical in the Gophers’ pick-and-roll defense.
“Coach stressed defense and getting stops tonight, so that’s what I pretty much focused all my energy and efforts [into],” Walker said. “I know if I take my defense to another level, I can be out there.”
Minnesota lost its last bout with Northwestern by one point after both Mathieu and Walker missed shots in the last five seconds of the game — leaving many players, including Walker, in tears.
Pitino showed the team a clip of that finish before Sunday’s game, which brought silence throughout the locker room.
“We knew we were coming in with a vengeance,” Walker said. “It was like a revenge game for us.
“We knew we had to come in and settle the difference, settle the score.”
Gophers fall to Wisconsin
The Northwestern win salvaged the weekend after a disappointing 78-70 loss to No. 21 Wisconsin on Thursday night.
Minnesota got nothing in the paint and was careless with the ball during the defeat.
The Gophers turned the ball over 13 times, including nine times in the first half, against a Wisconsin squad that doesn’t tend to force mistakes.
And unlike they did in Sunday’s win, the Gophers couldn’t overcome their mistakes.
“We were making plays that just were uncharacteristic of us,” Pitino said Thursday. “We had some costly ones, really in the first half.”
Minnesota scored 48 points in the paint in their 81-68 victory over Wisconsin on Jan. 22. Walker had 18 points and nine rebounds in that game.
On Thursday, however, he was limited to five points and two boards, while Minnesota scored just 20 points in the paint. Walker played just 15 minutes, largely because of foul trouble.
“He was very timid defensively because he was scared to foul,” Pitino said, “and that affected his offense.”
That was was an issue all night for the Gophers on Thursday.
Minnesota committed 26 fouls and the Badgers attempted 36 free throws in the game.
It was another example of the inconsistency that’s hindered the Gophers all season after the team played so well in a win over Indiana last Saturday.
Minnesota didn’t seem to get much of anything going on the offensive end, either, outside of junior guard Andre Hollins.
Hollins finished with 22 points, marking the fourth time he’s hit the 20-point mark in six career matchups with Wisconsin.
Still, 11 of those points came in the final 5:36 of the game as the Gophers went with a smaller lineup and attempted to mount a ferocious comeback.
Minnesota went on an 18-8 run to cut the deficit to five points with 1:20 to play, but it couldn’t get any closer.
“We definitely wanted to come in and get one here,” Hollins said Thursday. “We had an opportunity, but we can’t hang our heads.”