Sometimes, the biggest home court advantage doesn't come from 15,000 fans yelling and screaming at an opposing team, reveling in their every errant pass and missed shot. Sometimes, a team's personal house of horrors takes the form of a half-full high school-like gymnasium covered in purple. Such was the case for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who hadn't won at small, sleepy Welsh-Ryan Arena since the 2007-2008 season, Tubby Smith's first year at the helm and a time when no one had heard of Twitter and LeBron James hadn't fled Cleveland yet.
But despite entering their own version of Waterloo and committing 17 turnovers to Nortwestern's eight, they somehow found a way under first year coach Rick Pitino to pull out a 54-48 victory and avoid another disastrous addition (or in this case subtraction) to their tournament resume. Entering the second half with a three point deficit, Deandre Mathieu took over for the Golden Gophers with a series of drives and acrobatic moves, attacking the basket at will and putting the Wildcats on their defensive toes for the rest of the game.
The first half was an ugly affair with Minnesota turning the ball over seemingly every other possession and Northwestern missing shot after shot after shot. However, even with a better shooting percentage and the rebounding advantage, the Gophers found themselves trailing at the break. Chris Collins' squad had been able to dictate the pace of the game, turning it into a defensive affair with scoring at a premium. This followed the Wildcats' preferred style after they had dropped their first three conference games and decided to change their attack, both offensively and defensively.
As JerShon Cobb seemed to make three-pointers at will, finishing 5 of 7 from behind the arc, Northwestern leading scoring Drew Crawford couldn't hit water from a boat in the middle of the ocean finishing 1 for 15 from the field. Though this wasn't for a lack of hustle, as he finished with 11 rebounds and played stifling defense throughout the game's duration. However, it seemed the Wildcats couldn't make up for their senior leader's lack of accuracy on the offensive end and shot 30.2 percent from the field for the game.
Meanwhile, it wasn't always pretty for the Golden Gophers but they found a way to overcome the three-point deficit at halftime and lean on Mathieu to both score and distribute to open shooters. Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins combined to only make four field goals all game, but an Austin Hollins three-pointer from the wing with 3:09 left in the second half completely changed the outlook of the game, extending the Gopher lead to five, 49-44. In a game with a combined 102 points, this seemed like a mountain to climb for a Northwestern squad who struggled to knock down open shots.
While sloppy, the Gophers showed resolve to defeat a team that has given them fits the last seven years. If there's one thing that we've learned about the Big Ten this year, it's that every game cannot be taken for granted (paging Michigan and Michigan State). Whether home or away, every team has the chance to beat you on any given day or night. The Gophers avoided dropping a winnable road game and head home to Williams Arena to play the last-place Fighting Illini. While the game could be a trap, the Gophers may have some new-found confidence from pulling out a close game on the road. Meanwhile, Northwestern will have to lick their wounds and before heading to Columbus to face the Ohio State Buckeyes as they try to break a quickly accumulating three-game losing streak. Both teams next play Wednesday, February 19th.