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Northwestern’s role players flourish against Minnesota

Anthony Gaines, Aaron Falzon, and Gavin Skelly all showed off their skill sets on Tuesday night.

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

ROSEMONT, Ill. — With 1:21 left in the first half of Wednesday night’s game against Minnesota, freshman Anthony Gaines grabbed a missed shot and raced up the court with a full head of steam. Ignoring the pleas of his coach, he dribbled past Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern’s two primary ball-handlers. A Minnesota defender put his body between Gaines and the basket, but a swift behind-the-back dribble gave the freshman a clear lane to the basket. Gaines took the ball up strong and drew a foul, nailing two free throws moments later to push the Northwestern advantage to 41-17.

“There were a couple times I tried to rein him on the fast break,” Chris Collins said of Gaines after the game. “I’d rather have guys making mistakes by trying to do things like that, trying to be aggressive, trying to play hard.”

Looking at the stat sheet, Gaines’s performance didn’t stand out compared to McIntosh’s record-setting night or Dererk Pardon’s double-double. In 17 minutes, the Kingston, N.Y. native scored 3 points, and logged 6 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. Nonetheless, Gaines’s coast-to-coast sequence in the first half is indicative of the freshman’s growing confidence.

And while Gaines’s three-point effort wasn’t the story of Tuesday night’s game, his improved play, along with solid efforts from fellow role (AKA non-big four) players Aaron Falzon and Gavin Skelly, is a welcome development for a Northwestern team trying to build up some momentum.

“Anthony’s a big part of what we are doing going forward,” Collins said. “I think he can be a key component to us the rest of the year as he continues to get more comfortable.”

At his best on the defensive end, Gaines was all over the floor in Northwestern’s 2-3 zone. Earlier in the first half, he picked Nate Mason’s pocket and was ready to throw down a huge dunk before getting grabbed from behind. The length of Gaines and Vic Law clearly bothered Minnesota’s shooters in the first half, as the Golden Gophers only managed a 3-for-13 mark from three-point range before the break.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

It was a breakout game for forward Aaron Falzon as well. Last Friday night, Falzon played only two minutes against Penn State, missing his lone shot attempt. Against Minnesota, Falzon drew the start and logged a season-high 24 minutes. The redshirt sophomore helped put the Golden Gophers away, scoring 13 of his 15 points in the second half and knocking down three of five attempts from beyond the arc.

Falzon held his own on the defensive end as well. After fouling out against Illinois and Nebraska, Falzon was never in danger of being disqualified Tuesday night, and he pulled down a season-high five rebounds as well.

Collins wasn’t happy with Gavin Skelly’s missed dunk attempt and ensuing technical foul, but he was enthused by the performance he got for his two forwards.

“When you can get that kind of production out of Aaron, with the spacing, and Gavin, those guys combined for 23 points and 10 rebounds, that’s great production out of that four spot for us,” Collins said.

Skelly picked up four fouls, but filled the stat sheet otherwise with 8 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists in 18 minutes. The senior also connected on both of his three-point attempts, bringing his mark on the season to an even 50 percent (15 for 30).

The Wildcats put it all together against Minnesota, getting contributions up and down the lineup. Getting great performances on the same night from McIntosh, Pardon, and Scottie Lindsey has been rare this season and was undoubtedly a welcome sight for Northwestern fans.

Tuesday night’s game also gave fans a glimpse of Northwestern’s role players at their best. Skelly and Falzon brought the spacing anticipated by fans all season long and showed proficiency defensively. Gaines leveraged his athleticism, flying around the court and looking much more assertive on the offensive end.

Collins is certainly hoping balanced efforts like this one become the norm, as he will need all hands on deck if Northwestern is to overcome its slow start to the year and make a run at the postseason.