There were many games this season Richard Pitino had to worry about his Gophers men’s basketball team trying to make up for injuries sapping its depth.
The opposite finally happened.
The Gophers finally got healthier and ran into an opponent more banged up than them Sunday night. As a result, they were able to wear down Northwestern in a 77-68 victory in front of an announced 9,574 at Williams Arena.
“We anticipated they would play zone with a week off and their injuries,” Pitino said. “I thought we did a good job attacking it.”
Taking advantage of an inexperienced and shorthanded opponent, Daniel Oturu had 19 points and 16 rebounds for the Gophers (8-6, 2-2 Big Ten), who made all 19 of their free-throw attempts and won the rebounding battle 43-28. Marcus Carr finished with 17 points and seven assists.
Even coaches at full strength this season had a tough time slowing down Oturu and Carr, one of the Big Ten’s most dominant center-point guard tandems. So, imagine how Northwestern’s Chris Collins felt when he was down a few players Sunday.
“They really didn’t give us any help with some missed free throws,” Collins said. “Obviously their physicality on the glass and our inability [giving up] 15 offensive rebounds headed by Oturu, who is a terrific player.”
The Wildcats (5-8, 0-3), who lost their fourth game in a row, played without freshmen Boo Buie, senior A.J. Turner and junior Anthony Gaines, who had season-ending shoulder surgery. Collins said he didn’t know when Buie and Turner would be back from lower-body injuries.
Pitino could relate to Collins, with junior big man Eric Curry out for the season because of a knee injury. Junior guard Payton Willis missed the previous three games because of an ankle injury. Senior forward Alihan Demir was dealing with a sore knee the previous two games.
But a good sign for the Gophers moving forward was the return of Willis, and Demir looking better on Sunday. They definitely wished they had both players healthy sooner, after they fell at Purdue 83-78 in double overtime on Thursday.
But Willis’ absence helped Pitino build confidence in freshman Tre’ Williams, who made his fourth consecutive start Sunday. Both Willis and Williams helped take pressure off Carr, who had 27 points Thursday but struggled with seven turnovers as he got worn out late.
“It was tough going out there [Thursday], especially for me because I did a lot of things down the stretch that didn’t really contribute to us getting a W,” Carr said. “[Williams] reaped the benefits, and getting Payton back now and getting his feet wet today going into Michigan State is only going to make us stronger.”
Williams had a career-best 10 points Sunday, including a steal and dunk to cap a 13-0 run and give the Gophers a 57-34 lead midway through the second half.
Northwestern used an 11-0 run to get back into the game after Miller Kopp hit three consecutive three-pointers. Pat Spencer, who had 22 points and eight rebounds, converted a three-point play to cut it to 59-48 with 6:27 left, but the scrappy Wildcats wouldn’t get within single digits until the waning minutes.
Oturu’s breakout sophomore season — he is averaging 19 points and 12 rebounds — has helped make up for the loss of Curry, who was expected to replace former All-Big Ten forward Jordan Murphy alongside him. Filling that role has been Demir, who finished with 11 points and nine rebounds Sunday.
Demir, a 6-9 graduate transfer from Turkey, struggled at Purdue. But both he and Willis back healthy at just the right time Sunday.
“I feel like [Demir] is playing really good basketball right now,” Oturu said. “He was a little hurt when we played Purdue, but I felt like he really bounced back today.”