On multiple, crunch-time second half possessions, Northwestern got the matchup it wanted. Running a high pick and roll for star guard Bryant McIntosh, the Wildcats forced a switch that found McIntosh on the wing one-on-one with Minnesota's power forward Jordan Murphy.
Advantage McIntosh, NU Coach Chris Collins must have thought. Wrong.
Murphy showed just why this Minnesota team is so dangerous. The first time McIntosh squared up on Murphy, the Minnesota's sophomore power forward kept NU's guard in front of him, behind the three point arc and forced a contested three pointer. McIntosh missed.
The second time Murphy found himself in space against McIntosh, NU's guard used a quick first step to penetrate. But Murphy was game here too. He moved his feet, regained defensive position and blocked McIntosh's layup attempt.
Minnesota's ability to defend the perimeter was why it won at Welsh-Ryan arena on Thursday night and it's why the sky is the limit for the Gophers in the Big Ten conference.
Northwestern shot 23 percent from three on the night and a dismal 6.7 percent (1-15) in the second half. This wasn't a case of a capable NU team simply missing open looks. The Gophers' perimeter defense was excellent. And it was excellent because of its versatility.
Think of Minnesota's versatility a bit like you'd think of Golden State's defensive versatility in the NBA. Draymond Green at the 4 or 5 can capably play against smaller, quicker guards when forced into the situation. Same here.
And credit Coach Richard Pitino for using his team's athleticism and length to his team's advantage defensively. It wasn't just Murphy. Pitino occasionally went small in the second half, playing freshman forward Eric Curry alongside Murphy, giving Minnesota 5 players on the floor who can capably defend the perimeter.
Minnesota's defensive fundamentals, especially on the close out at three point line, have also been excellent. Players are closing fast but getting into defensive position, with short, choppy steps to stay under control as they close, and challenging with their hands up. Good close-out technique isn't sexy to discuss, and it doesn't show up individually in a box score, but it makes a world of difference defensively. And when combined with a long, athletic, versatile roster, it can stifle good-shooting teams.
That's why Minnesota won 70-66 for its second consecutive Big Ten road win.
Offensively, Minnesota was balanced. After a scorching hot start to begin the game, Minnesota cooled off. Nate Mason, a game after catapulting himself into All Big Ten conversations, was quiet. But to his credit, he didn't force his shots and he came up huge with 8 consecutive free throws in the final seconds. Yes, 8. He finished with 12 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds to only 1 turnover.
Amir Coffey's 17 points paced Minnesota offensively. Reggie Lynch added 12 points and 8 rebounds. Coffey's play on both ends of the floor -- his length and anticipation defensively and his ability to finish in transition and create his own shot offensively -- was fun to watch. He's looking increasingly like a star in the making as just a freshman.
For Gophers' fans shrugging their shoulders at a win over Northwestern, don't. Collins' Wildcats are 12-4 and will, at worst, be on the bubble come March. Other Big Ten teams will fall in Weslh-Ryan arena.
- How good must have it felt for Michael Hurt to hit that impactful second half three? Hurt has played meaningful minutes but had went just 1-12 from 3 before his make Thursday. Big time confidence boost for a needed bench contributor.
- A game after almost single-handedly carrying the Gophers in overtime at Purdue, Eric Curry was quiet. He didn't score. But he played 16 minutes and helped the Gophers field an athletic defense that helped Minnesota defend the perimeter.
- I thought Bakary Konate's 8 minutes were again very good. He rolled on high screens twice and presented himself for Nate Mason to find for easy dunks. Konate as a back=up big man is pretty good.
- Dupree McBrayer struggled from the field. 3-10 and 0-3 from 3. McBrayer forced his offense a couple times and he occasionally gives me Carols Morris flashbacks.
- Free throws. Ugh. Minnesota didn't get to the line at the rate it has during the first two Big Ten games, but when it did the Gophers shot 14-22. Prior to Mason's 8 straight to ice the game Minnesota was a ghastly 6-14.Gotta make FTs.
- Minnesota won the turnover battle again, this time just by a 9-8 margin. But winning that battle on the road is always a win. On the season Minnesota has 255 assists and 191 turnovers.