For the second year in a row, Northwestern must turn around and open the Big Ten tournament against the school it played during the regular-season finale.
The Gophers led by 10 points with 13 minutes to go, but senior point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson hit a 3-pointer to snap out of a game-long slump and trigger a massive rally. Thompson (18 points) and sixth man Alex Marcotullio (career-high 18 points) combined for 28 of Northwestern's 37 points over the final 12:56 to ensure Thompson, Mike Capocci, Ivan Peljusic and Jeff Ryan went out winners on Senior Night.
Northwestern's win ensured the Wildcats and the Gophers get the eighth and ninth seeds for the Big Ten tournament, which means they'll kick off the league's 14th postseason tournament at 2:30 p.m. EST March 10 at Conseco Fieldhouse. Coincidentally, it'll be the sixth time Northwestern plays in the 8 vs. 9 opener -- and the third time Minnesota will be its opponent in that game.
Both the Wildcats and the Gophers could have a different look by next week's tipoff. Minnesota has gone eight of its last 10 games without senior point guard Al Nolen, who broke his foot prior to the first NU-Minnesota meeting on Jan. 26. While Gophers coach Tubby Smith was non-committal about his comeback, Minnesota hopes Nolen can return soon.
Meanwhile, Northwestern has played its last two games without starting freshman guard Jershon Cobb. He strained a muscle in his hip/groin area and wore sweats for Wednesday's game. The Wildcats are hopeful he'll heal sufficiently to play in Indianapolis.
BEYOND THE BOX SCORE:
In Chicago, they say if you don't like the weather, just wait a few minutes. At Northwestern, if you don't like the way the Wildcats are shooting 3-pointers, just wait a little bit and they're likely to go from cold to hot. During their 68-57 comeback win over Minnesota Wednesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Wildcats missed 17 of their 20 3-point attempts during the opening 27 minutes. That helped Minnesota take a 41-31 lead.
But in the final 12:56, the Wildcats nailed 7 of 10 3-point tries as they raced past the Gophers. Senior point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson, for example, missed 6 of 7 3-pointers in the first 27 minutes but nailed his final 3 3-point tries. NU coach Bill Carmody said the Wildcats ran the same basic play for the final eight minutes -- a set called "jayvee" -- that allowed NU to pick off a defender and get open shots a few steps behind the 3-point arc. Thompson, guard Alex Marcotullio (2 3-pointers) and John Shurna (2 3-pointers) split up the open looks.
Northwestern heads into the Big Ten tournament leading the Big Ten in 3-pointers made (9.2) and 3-pointers attempted (24.1) per game. The Wildcats are shooting 38.1 percent from the 3-point arc. Last year the Wildcats led the league in 3-pointers made (9.3) and 3-pointers attempted (26.1) per game while hitting 35.7 percent.
--For the third year in a row, Northwestern sent out its seniors as winners as the Wildcats rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit to claim a 68-57 Big Ten win over Minnesota at Welsh-Ryan Arena. While the Wildcats' dramatically improved shooting eyes played a big rally in the rally -- they made 3 of 20 3-point attempts in the first 27 minutes, but 7 of 10 3-pointers thereafter -- NU coach Bill Carmody cited the team's defense and rebounding as more important factors.
The Gophers shot just 38 percent from the field in the second half and managed just 2 points from the 12:34 mark to the 5:13 mark. The smaller Wildcats also owned a 17-13 edge on the boards in the second half. NU lost the rebounding battle by a 33-31 count -- its best margin since the 1-point loss to No. 1 Ohio State on Jan. 29.
--Senior PG Michael "Juice" Thompson missed 9 of his first 10 shots on Senior Night, but stacked up 16 of his game-high-tying 18 points in the final 12:56 to rally the Wildcats to victory. The 5-foot-9 Thompson added a career-high-tying 7 rebounds to go with 3 assists and no turnovers. He added 4 3-pointers, which gives him 16 in the last 4 games.
--Sophomore G Alex Marcotullio shrugged off two scoreless games last week to provide the best game of his career. The lefty sharpshooter came off the bench to produce a career-high 18 points in a career-high 33 minutes, but he also chipped in 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and his second block of the season. Prior to this effort, Marcotullio owned just two double-figure scoring efforts in 37 Big Ten games.
--Senior point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson earned another Northwestern career record when he played in his 122nd game on Feb. 24 against Penn State. Thompson owns the school records for games (123), starts (123), assists (503) and minutes (4,385). While he hit nine 3-pointers last week to push his career total to 253, he's not going to catch former teammate Craig Moore's 320. With 1,561 career points, Thompson needs just 15 to move into fifth place on NU's all-time list.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I did well. But I would have rather played less and maybe scored less and still got the win. That's just how I feel and I think a lot of guys on our team don't really care how much they get, as long as we get the win." -