MINNEAPOLIS — The second half of the season is going to be a slog for Northwestern men’s basketball, and it showed on Sunday night.
Playing with a depleted squad of only seven scholarship players thanks to three injuries, Northwestern (5-8, 0-3) fell to Minnesota (8-6, 2-2) 77-68 on Sunday evening at Williams Arena. Pat Spencer put together somewhat of a bounce back performance with a nice 22-point game in the wake of Boo Buie’s, but it wasn’t nearly enough of a boost to get the Wildcats their first conference win of the season.
Chris Collins elected to go big in his starting lineup. Between Ryan Young, Pete Nance, Robbie Beran and Miller Kopp, NU started the game with some serious size. Pat Spencer got the start at point guard with Boo Buie and Anthony Gaines both sidelined, the latter for the remainder of the season.
In a complete 180 from the Hartford debacle, the Wildcats started the game with good energy, playing sound defense (for the most part) and getting some nice one-on-one looks in and around the paint. The forward-heavy lineup paid dividends on the offensive end as the ‘Cats outscored Minnesota 18 to 10 in the paint through the first half.
But the play on the perimeter was a different story. Shaky guard play and tight man-to-man defense from Minnesota had the Wildcats struggling to get open looks from the outside. The Wildcats didn’t even attempt a three-pointer until Miller Kopp clanked one off the rim with 2:57 to go in the first half. That would be their only attempt of the opening frame.
On the other hand, the Gophers made a living for themselves beyond the arc, shooting 6-for-19 from three in the first half to build and maintain a comfortable advantage for most of the period. Minnesota also dominated on the glass, taking advantage of Northwestern’s young bigs for eight second-chance points on ten offensive rebounds in the first.
The Minnesota lead got to as big as nine multiple times throughout the first half but never reached double digits. The Wildcats failed to score for the final 2:43 of the frame, yet still faced a manageable 34-25 deficit at the break. Spencer led the way with ten first half points for NU.
The Wildcats started the second half with another good burst of energy, but fatigue and a glaring lack of offensive options began to catch up with them as the period wore on. Northwestern fell stagnant on offense once again, enduring a nearly five-minute stretch without a field goal that saw the Gophers extend their lead into comfortable double digits.
Continuing to wear down Northwestern’s seven-man rotation on both ends of the floor, Minnesota appeared to have blown the game open as the Gophers took advantage of another 4-plus minute NU scoring drought and went on a 13-0 run around the half’s midpoint. Richard Pitino’s squad built its lead all the way up to 57-34.
Just when the ‘Cats looked completely dead in the water, Miller Kopp buried three threes in quick succession to give NU a bit of life. A quick 11-0 run got the Wildcats somewhat back in the game, saving them from embarrassment. Two Ryan Young free throws and a Pat Spencer three whittled the Gopher lead all the way down to 67-58 with just under three minutes to go, but that’s as close as the ‘Cats would get for the rest of the way.
Despite a shaky start, Spencer was far and away Northwestern’s best player on the night, finishing with 20 points and 8 assists on 8-for-17 shooting. Kopp was the only other Wildcat in double figures with 14, 11 of which came in the second half. Daniel Oturu led the way for the Golden Gophers with an impressive 17 point, 15 rebound showing.
Next up for Northwestern is a midweek trip to Bloomington to take on an Indiana squad (11-3, 1-2) coming off a blowout loss at Maryland. After that, the Wildcats have a home game at Nebraska (6-8, 1-2) that will present their clearest shot at a conference win all season.