Thursday, March 13, 2008

On Verge Of Embarassment, Gophers Survive

The only way to adequately describe how the Gophers beat Northwestern 55-52 Thursday afternoon in the Big Ten Tournament is to take a look two entirely different halves.

But before I break down what went so horribly wrong in the first half--which found the Gophers down 16 at one point--and what transpired to enable such a good comeback, I need to spend a minute praising Lawrence Westbrook.

The sophomore shooting guard, who has been playing in the shadow of the more experienced Lawrence McKenzie, took over in the second half at a time the Gophers desperately needed a go-to player. When the Gophers needed it most, Westbrook created his own shot. He rebounded and immediately pushed tempo. He hit from the outside once the Northwestern defenders starting flying by him, he pumped, hopped and hit a mid-range jumper. Heading into a likely NIT bid at some point, and more importantly next season, Westbrook needs to play with a scorers mindset all of the time. Westbrook put up a career-high 17 points. He's the reason the Gophers have a chance to beat Indiana on Friday.

Now, on to a tale of two halves.

First Half: The Gophers went into the locker room at halftime trailing 34-21. When the Gophers played their once tenacious man defense, the Northwestern back doors were devastatingly efficient. When the Gophers went to zone, much like against Illinois, the Gophers couldn't close out on shooters. The Gophers had nothing. No inside offense. No penetration. Only one-on-one and high screens. Our offense looked like an offense the girls team from Eastview, no, Chisago, might be working out the kinks on in an early season scrimmage in Cloquet.

Just for the record, this was just the ninth time this season Bill Carmody's bottom-feeding Wildcats went into the halftime locker room with a lead.

Things were so ugly that the benchwarmer Travis Busch made an appearance. Yes, it was that ugly. Complicating matters was an early ankle injury to Spencer Tollackson. Normally, this isn't a huge loss. But one advantage Minnesota had in two previous lopsided wins against Northwestern was height and an inside game. Without Tollackson, in the first half, the Gophers did nothing to exploit a still decided size advantage.

Obviously then, with Northwestern embarrassing the Gophers, the quite bored ESPN announcers began to talk about the dreaded Tubby Smith stare. Erin Andrews' presence was really the only upside in the first half, and she told us all about the vaunted stare. Said stare was in full effect.

I guess it worked.

Second Half: The Gophers came out in an extended and active 2-3 zone. Shots were contested now. The forwards attacked the glass for rebounds. And Northwestern was rushing it's offense. Instead of taking a good 20-30 seconds off the shot clock, the Wildcats were forced into tougher shots. And they actually started to miss.

On offense, the energy was now present. Cuts were crisp. Shot selection improved dramatically. Westbrook, for the first eight minutes or so of the half took over. He did everything the Gophers needed to get the Gophers back in the game. When he missed, Dan Coleman grabbed a key offensive rebound--and the Gophers during the second half had an entirely different sort of aggression on the offensive glass.

But as soon as Westbrook led the huge charge to get the game knotted at 42-42 with about 10 minutes to play, the Gophers, maybe exhausted from the furious comeback, went cold. Northwestern, still cold itself, pushed ahead to a 47-42 lead. As the clock ticked down, with about five minutes to play, the game resembled so many others that the Gophers had played in this year. In the past, the Gophers have fallen behind, busted their butts to claw back and then faded away. But this time the Gophers had enough moxie to finish the job.

Down five, the Gophers extended pressure full court. Northwestern started turning the ball over: 10 second counts, over and back. And with Northwestern back up one point in the last two minutes, Coleman picked off a lazy pass at the free throw line on defense and sprinted the length of the floor--pausing to pull up his shorts momentarily--and slammed the ball home.

The Wildcats had chances to win, but the Gophers now tenacious, arms-in-passing lanes, fast rotating defense pressured bad shots. And down the stretch Blake Hoffarber, who hit a timely three, pulled down an ever important offensive board.

During the second half the Gophers did almost everything right, everything they had to do to pull off the comeback: defensive pressure, turnovers, rebounding on both ends, a hot streak and some intensity that wasn't there to begin the game.

I wonder if the Tubby stare had anything to do with it.

Up Next: The Gophers face Indiana Friday night for the third time this season. Hopefully the Gophers take the attitude the played with in the second half into the game against the Hoosiers.


Dave said...

Hey, don't lower Chisago's girls team to the level that they were playing at!

PJS said...

Chisago JV girls?

Anonymous said...

Go with North Branch JV girls..

Dave said...

NB is acceptable ;-)

The Sports Guy said...

Hutchinson as well. I, too, was really impressed with Westbrook. Man, did he come up big.

My comment, though, is why does JAS, Busch and Payton even see the court? We have 11 players, and let's say Spencer plays.

My starting 5: McKenzie, Westbrook, Johnson, Coleman and Tollackson.

My bench: Nolen, Williams, Blake.

That's your rotation.

alex said...

You're right, the sports guy. There is no reason that Busch, JAS, or Payton should be on the court. The fact that they were on there in the first half for an extended period was terrible, and didn't help to close the NU lead.

PJS said...

I'm with you guys. Though I will say that Payton lately hasn't done anything to hurt the team. If he plays a few minutes to allow Nolen, Westbrook or McKenzie to get a breather--when Tubby wants to go small, quick and push tempo--his involvement isn't bothering me as mmuch right now as it has. JAS and Busch, I have no idea why they are on a DI roster.

The Scarlet Gopher said...

Watching Payton and Busch get the minutes they did in the opening half was as frustrating as the Gophers' poor man defense.

I wouldn't have minded JAS out there more in the first half to help shoot Nortwestern out of their zone. JAS came in averaging 11.2 ppg against the Wildcats in six career contests. I'd rather have him out there against a heavily zone team - I just don't understand why Payton ever plays other than when we're running our press.

PJS said...

Good points on JAS re: his usefulness against zone heavy teams like NW.

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