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Gophers topple Northwestern

McClatchy News Service

INDIANAPOLIS — With only five minutes remaining Thursday to salvage their goal of reaching the NCAA tournament, the Gophers found themselves in a familiar place. Minnesota had blown a double-digit lead and trailed late — a la Saturday’s regular-season finale loss against Michigan — in the latest version of the "Most Important Matchup of the Year."

The consequences weren’t complicated: Losing against Northwestern (17-13) in the first round of the Big Ten tournament would mean a second consecutive trip to the NIT for the Gophers (22-9).

But this time the Gophers dug deep, outscoring Northwestern 17-4 in the final 5 minutes and 11 seconds of the game to emerge with a 66-53 victory. The victory moved the Gophers one step closer to their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2005.

Minnesota meets Big Ten regular-season champ Michigan State on Friday at 11 a.m. CDT in a tournament quarterfinal game.

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Gophers coach Tubby Smith, who said he hopes "all those experts are right" about Minnesota earning an at-large bid with Thursday’s victory, touted his team’s late-game poise.

"I never saw that panic in them," he said. "But I just thought our kids were focused and were not going to be denied during that stretch."

The Gophers escaped Northwestern behind a tenacious defense, batting away balls and altering shots on their way to a conference tournament team record 11 blocks. Minnesota’s perimeter defense limited Northwestern’s money shot. Craig Moore, the Big Ten’s leader in three-pointers made, went 2-for-14 from the three-point line. Kevin Coble, who carried Northwestern with 19 first-half points, was held to just two in the second half.

The Gophers had four points — to Northwestern’s five — in the first six minutes of the game. But Devron Bostick scored all of his 11 points before halftime and led a group of reserves on a 16-0 run, as the Gophers jumped out to a 22-8 lead. In the first half, Minnesota’s bench outscored Northwestern’s 27-0.

"I really just came out with intensity, do anything I can to help out on defense," Bostick said. "It just came to me offensively."

After they were down by 14 in the first half, however, the Wildcats got their first lead, 49-47, late in the game on a Michael Thompson shot off the glass. Freshman Ralph Sampson III converted a three-point play to give the Gophers the lead for good with just over five minutes remaining. Lawrence Westbrook followed with a field goal and two free throws as the Gophers put the game away with a 14-0 run.

Westbrook scored all of his team-high 14 points after halftime, while Sampson III added nine points, six rebounds and a tournament team record five blocks. Damian Johnson had eight points, seven rebounds and three blocks.

The Gophers also had nine turnovers, tying their regular season low, and went 10-for-12 from the free throw line in the final 2 minutes, 10 seconds.

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A win over Michigan State today would almost certainly remove all doubts about Minnesota’s NCAA tournament status.

If the Gophers are going to pull off another quarterfinal miracle like a year ago, when Blake Hoffarber’s last-second shot beat Indiana, they’ll need the intensity that got them through Thursday’s first test.

"We hear what people are saying," Westbrook said. "But the only for sure way that we’re going to be in the tournament is if we just win. ... But if we just keep doing that, I think our fate’s in our own hands."

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