Gophers Get Critical Win

The Gophers got a big win in the Big Ten, but their mission to improve their tournament standing isn't over yet.

The Gophers again have a winning record in the conference by virtue of Wednesday's win, which gave Minnesota a season sweep of Wisconsin and an improbable 21-win season.

But there's little time for celebration.

Coach Tubby Smith understands the need to get No. 22 Saturday against Michigan to raise the Gophers' profile with the NCAA Tournament selection committee and enter the Big Ten tournament on a high note.

Minnesota's pedestrian RPI continues to hover around 40, mostly because of the light nonconference schedule it played in November and December. But with that behind them, the Gophers can only take care of what's ahead — Michigan and the Big Ten tournament.

Wednesday's win was critical because of where it puts Minnesota in the standings but also because, with an identical 9-8 conference record to Wisconsin, the Gophers should hold the trump card because they swept the Badgers this season.

With two more wins — Saturday morning and in the conference tourney — the Gophers would feel very good about their chances.

MINNESOTA 51, WISCONSIN 46: Defense wins, eh? That was the ticket for Minnesota on Wednesday, when they stamped out the Badgers' methodical offense and limited them to 16 points in the first half. Since the Gophers are 33-1 in the Tubby Smith era when leading at the half, but the game tightened down the stretch, with Wisconsin missing a game-tying chance in the final minute.

The Gophers limited Wisconsin to 15 field goals and 33.3 percent shooting.

G Lawrence Westbrook had 15 points in 18 minutes to lead Minnesota.

NOTES

  • Coach Tubby Smith is now 41-22 as head coach at Minnesota. Smith is 3-2 in his career against Wisconsin.

  • Minnesota is 10-1 this season when Lawrence Westbrook leads the team in scoring.

  • The Golden Gophers swept Wisconsin for the first time since 1991-92.

  • Not counting seasons vacated due to NCAA violations, the Gophers have just one victory in their last 24 trips to Illinois since the 1977-78 season.

  • Tubby Smith has won 20 games in 16 consecutive seasons, dating back to 1994 and has stretched across stops at four schools: Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky and Minnesota.

  • Damian Johnson was white-hot in the early going against Illinois, but coach Tubby Smith's deep rotation helped take the ball out of Johnson's hands. While he's in no rush to shorten his bench, Smith will use his best scoring options together more often in the postseason. Johnson was the only Gopher to play more than 30 minutes Wednesday against Wisconsin.

  • G Al Nolen's assist-to-turnover ratio has steadily worsened as the season has progressed. Over the last three games, he has nine turnovers and five assists. He didn't have any assists in the Feb. 26 loss to the Illini, just the second time this season that has happened.

  • Westbrook's team-leading 12.2 points per game is also a career high. He has scored in double figures in 20 of 27 games this season, and Minnesota is 9-1 when he is the team's leading scorer.

  • C Colton Iverson grabbed eight rebounds against Illinois, equaling his career high set during the second game of the season against Bowling Green. The rebounds equaled Iverson's total from the previous two games combined.

    IN FOCUS: Winner gets a ticket to the NCAA Tournament? Perhaps. There's plenty on the line in The Barn, where Minnesota has been excellent (16-2) this season. The Gophers suffered a 12-point loss at Michigan two weeks ago behind Zack Novak's six 3-point bombs.

    PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — G Lawrence Westbrook, G Al Nolen, F Damian Johnson, F Ralph Sampson III, C Colton Iverson. Key Subs — G Blake Hoffarber, F Paul Carter, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, G/F Travis Busch, G Devoe Joseph, G Devron Bostick.

    GAME REVIEW:
    Michigan 74, Minnesota 62
    Minnesota 72, Northwestern 45
    Illinois 52, Minnesota 41
    Minnesota 51, Wisconsin 46

    GAME PREVIEW:
    vs. Michigan, Saturday, March 7
    Big Ten tournament at Indianapolis, March 12-15



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