EVANSTON, Ill. – Everyone else around the Gophers basketball program seemed to be stressing about possibly missing the NCAA tournament, so coach Richard Pitino tried to make sure his team ignored the outside noise about their bubble being close to bursting.
The Gophers were putting too much pressure on themselves as the losses piled up the past few weeks, but they got back on track Thursday night behind Amir Coffey’s 31 points in a 62-50 victory against struggling Northwestern in front of an announced crowd of 6,869 at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
The junior guard shot 12-for-19 from the field and got his first career double-double with 12 rebounds for Minnesota to snap a six-game losing streak on the road.
“This was a good road win,” Pitino said. “We had to rebound from a tough Rutgers loss. Any win in this league is really, really difficult as you see from top to bottom. Anybody can beat anybody in this league.”
A much more relaxed and focused Minnesota squad took control in the first half despite shooting just 38 percent from the field.
It helped to have Coffey’s 15 points, but the Gophers (18-11, 8-10) also held the Wildcats to only 29.6 percent shooting and forced nine turnovers.
So many times this season, Pitino watched his players let poor offense affect how well they played defensively, but that wasn’t the case Thursday.
Coffey was the only player in double figures in the game. Fellow starters Jordan Murphy, Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur had just 24 points combined on 8-for-29 shooting from the field, but they were still fighting for loose balls, rotating defensively and contesting every shot.
Murphy and Oturu were 9-for-17 combined, but still grabbed 17 rebounds together. Minnesota blocked five shots and recorded eight steals, including four from McBrayer.
“It felt good that our guys could perform with our backs against the wall,” said Murphy, who turned 22 on Thursday. “We can definitely perform under pressure. We actually needed this win and get some momentum going into our next game on Tuesday.”
In the first half, the Wildcats (12-16, 3-14) cut a 10-point deficit to 18-14 after a second straight three-pointer from Miller Kopp. Coffey answered with seven straight points, but Minnesota also kept Northwestern scoreless for a three-minute stretch.
Gabe Kalscheur, who went 6-for-6 from three-point range in a 68-64 loss last Sunday at Rutgers, hit his first and only three of the game to cap a 10-0 run and make it a 14-point advantage with 4:13 left in the first half for the Gophers, who led 32-20 at halftime.
Dererk Pardon and Vic Law, who had 45 points combined in a five-point loss to Wisconsin last weekend, scored on consecutive baskets, including Law’s dunk to cut it to 32-24 to open the second half.
Before Thursday, the Gophers had lost six times in seven games. Pitino’s team had halftime leads in four road losses. Sunday was the first time this season Minnesota lost (previously 14-0) when leading with five minutes left in the game.
Northwestern tried to put together a comeback by cutting a 20-point deficit to 60-50 with under a minute left, but the Wildcats eventually dropped their ninth straight game.
Law and Pardon combined for 29 points, but the rest of the team had just 21 points on 7-for-29 shooting from the field.
The Gophers were among the last teams in nearly all of the NCAA tournament projections this week, so they likely need another signature win or two to feel comfortable about an at-large bid.
They end the regular season with two Quadrant 1 win opportunities Tuesday on Senior Night against Purdue and to finish the regular season next Friday at Maryland.
“These last couple games are really important for our Big Ten tournament seed and obviously a (NCAA) tournament bid,” Coffey said. “We’re trying to pick up as many as we can.”