On Wednesday, Minnesota opened the Big Ten Tournament fighting to keep its season alive. The Gophers swept their first round opponent, Northwestern, in the regular season, but the Wildcats had confidence coming off a victory over a ranked Penn State squad over the weekend.
A halftime deficit did not deter Minnesota (15-16, 8-12 Big Ten) from outscoring Northwestern (8-23, 3-17 Big Ten) 45-26 in the second half en route to a 74-56 victory. The Gophers made 12 3-pointers, most of which came in the second half as Minnesota dominated the final period.
"I thought we did a good job adjusting to what they did," head coach Richard Pitino told the media. "I thought they had a really good game plan to try to take Marcus [Carr] out of it, to try to trap Daniel [Oturu], and we did a good job of adjusting."
Both offenses got off to frustrating starts to begin the game, as Minnesota and Northwestern opened 1-10 and 1-11 respectively on field goal attempts. With the game tied at 4-4, the Gophers went on a 13-5 run, but from that point the Wildcats outscored Minnesota 14-4 to take a 23-21 lead late in the first period.
Northwestern shot efficiently to close the period, making 9-14 shots after the Gophers took an eight-point lead. This included making 8-9 field goals in the final 6:24 of before halftime. Meanwhile, Minnesota went 9-30 from the field in the opening 20 minutes, but hung around, trailing 31-29 at intermission.
"Obviously, they were very, very aggressive with us on ball screens," Pitino told the media. "I thought we did a terrific job of adjusting in the second half and spreading out the basketball and sharing it very, very well, as well as not turning the ball over was key for us. "
More than half of the Gophers' first half points came from sophomore Daniel Oturu who scored 15 points before the break, adding four rebounds and a pair of blocks. Oturu, who earned second team All-Big Ten honors earlier in the week, was the only Gopher to get to the free throw line in the first half, making 8-10 foul shots.
Out of the locker room, the Gophers made their first three shots, jumping out in front for the first time since the 4:56 mark in the first half. A three from sophomore Gabe Kalscheur made the score 36-33 Minnesota. Northwestern came right back with a three of its own but seven consecutive points from senior Alihan Demir gave the Gophers a 43-36 lead.
"It was just the mentality coming out of halftime," redshirt sophomore Marcus Carr told the media. "We were being more aggressive, getting the assist to jump shots, driving the ball, kicking it out and getting guys open and taking good looks and shooting with confidence."
Throughout the game, Minnesota flexed its muscles on the offensive glass. The Gophers had a pronounced advantage in offensive rebounding, pulling down 13 in comparison to five for Northwestern, leading to a 22-5 edge in second-chance points.
Finding its touch from outside, Minnesota connected on 9-14 threes in the second period. The Gophers stretched their lead to 19 points with 8:14 remaining, due largely to a 19-4 run. Northwestern never again came within 17 points of Minnesota, who cruised to the finish line, never having to fend off a late push from the Wildcats.
Oturu led all scorers with 24 points to go along with eight rebounds, tying a for the team-high with Demir who also scored seven points. Carr made 4-6 3-pointers to finish with 14 points and five assists. Redshirt junior Payton Willis scored 12 points, including a pair of threes to also finish in double-figures.
"I always have confidence in myself to shoot the ball and knock down open shots," Willis told the media of his 3-pointers. "It just so happened those two plays, we had good ball movement, and I was the recipient of the jump shot."
With 15 points, sophomore Pete Nance was the only Northwestern player to score double-digit points.