EVANSTON, ILL. – Before the Gophers men's basketball team took the court at Northwestern, coach Richard Pitino played a clip of another game in the locker room.
It was the final few seconds of the last time the two teams had met, on Feb. 1 at Williams Arena, when the Gophers failed to score on their final possession and the Wildcats pulled out a one-point victory.
"Everybody in the locker room was pretty quiet," said center Mo Walker, who had missed the Gophers' final shot under the basket in that game. "It was a revenge game for us. We knew we had to settle the score."
They did so in a way that was often cringe-inducing, pulling out a 54-48 victory at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Sunday in a game that featured 17 Gophers turnovers, many of them unforced. But by locking down defensively in the second half, as well as getting a little luck, the Gophers were able to exorcise another demon as well, getting their second road victory in seven tries on the Big Ten schedule.
"We were tired of losing on the road," said point guard DeAndre Mathieu, who finished with 18 points and four rebounds, providing the offensive spark in the second half. "Coach was tired of losing on the road. We knew we could do it, we just had to get out there and we finally got one."
With 3 minutes, 9 seconds remaining, the Gophers took a 49-44 lead on a three-pointer from Austin Hollins after Northwestern center Alex Olah went down at the other end because of an ankle injury. The Wildcats missed three free throws and two three-pointers down the stretch, and Walker drew a huge charge from Drew Crawford with 33 seconds remaining to help seal the victory. Walker had a stellar night on the defensive end all around, recording three blocked shots.
A defensive combination of Austin Hollins and Daquein McNeil held Crawford to 1-for-15 shooting, halting Northwestern's best offensive threat, even if JerShon Cobb (23 points) stepped up to fill the senior's shoes. The Gophers held the Wildcats to 30.2 percent shooting from the field overall.
"A great, great defensive performance," Pitino said.
But it wasn't always pretty. In fact, frequently it was just the opposite.
After making a three-pointer just before halftime to pull the Gophers (17-9, 6-7 Big Ten) within 28-25, Mathieu picked up right where he left off after the break. The 5-9 junior took the ball from end to end for one layup after another, keeping the Gophers neck-and-neck with the Wildcats over a second half that saw six ties and five lead changes.
"The three kind of got my confidence going a little bit, and then Coach lit a fire under me at halftime," Mathieu said. "He's good at getting me going even though he shouldn't have to."
Like the rest of the team, though, Mathieu struggled mightily when it came to ballhandling.
Mathieu had four turnovers, and the Gophers were fortunate to trail by only three at the break after committing 10 in the first half, despite Northwestern (12-14, 5-8) not pressuring on defense. Their turnover total was up to 15 at the 14:21 mark of the second half, but they committed only two the rest of the way.
The victory was essential for keeping the Gophers on the bubble for an NCAA tournament berth but also potentially for their psyche after they had lost four of five coming in. They probably need to win three of the next five games in order to secure an invitation to the Big Dance.
"We never, ever talk about it," Pitino said of the NCAA tournament. "We don't even mention it. … It just means we're on a one-game winning streak."