On the last night of February, the Gophers headed to Evanston, Illinois knowing they needed a victory to keep their hopes of making a run deep into March alive.
For just the second time on the season, Minnesota (18-11, 8-10 Big Ten) earned a victory in a true-road game, knocking off Northwestern (12-16, 3-14 Big Ten) 62-50 in the Gophers' first trip to the newly-renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena.
"I thought from start to finish we controlled [the game] about as well as we could." head coach Richard Pitino told the Gopher radio network. "Proud of our guys and the effort."
Minnesota's defense set the tone early, forcing six turnovers in the opening 10 minutes and denying the Wildcats clean looks. While Northwestern hit three early 3-pointers to hang around, the Gophers controlled the paint, finishing strong at the rim and getting to the free throw line.
After the visitors stretched the lead to 10 points early, Northwestern cut Minnesota's lead to 18-14. At that point, junior Amir Coffey asserted himself, scoring seven consecutive points, including the team's first 3-point field goal of the game. Freshman Gabe Kalscheur then nailed a 3-pointer from the corner, and suddenly Minnesota was doubled-up on the Wildcats 28-14 late in the first half.
Coffey bounced back from a disappointing showing against Rutgers in which he went 4-12 from the field and finished with just 8 points despite playing all 40 minutes. On Thursday, he eclipsed that production in the opening 14 minutes and went on to have his finest game in the maroon and gold.
"I told [Coffey], now I have to answer the question, 'Why doesn't Amir do that all the time?'" Pitino joked on the Gopher radio network. "We worked on him jump-stopping a little bit more, he knocked down some threes, he's a really, really good player. I played him 40 minutes, I wasn't going to take him out."
After turnovers on their first two possessions of the second half, Minnesota further extended its lead using a 9-0 run to make the score 41-24. Continuing to play assertively, Coffey solidified his career night, adding a pair of 3-pointers and notching his first career double-double.
Continuing to roll throughout the second half, Coffey worked towards a career-high in scoring. With 3:54 remaining, he received a twirling, behind-the-back pass from senior Dupree McBrayer and slammed down a two-handed dunk to match the 31 points he scored against Nebraska on Dec. 5.
Besides Coffey, the rest of the Gophers produced a modest offensive output, making the junior's performance all the more critical. The rest of the Gophers combined didn't match Coffey's scoring and no other player finished in double-figure scoring.
Pitino primarily played his starters on Thursday night. After no bench player scored against Rutgers, redshirt sophomore Eric Curry was the only non-starter in the scoring column against Northwestern, putting up six points.
"We'll take tomorrow off, get some rest," Pitino told the Gopher radio network. "We've got some guys who played a lot of minutes, and get better, we're really excited to play one more home game."
Next up for Minnesota is senior night at Williams Arena against Purdue. The Gophers fell to Purdue 73-63 on Feb. 3.