EVANSTON, Ill. - The Gophers hadn’t won back-to-back road basketball games in the Big Ten since 2012.
After his team shocked Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., on Sunday, Gophers coach Richard Pitino watched his players get off to another hot start Thursday and fall behind late. But they finished strong again, ending Northwestern’s school-record 13-game home winning streak in a 70-66 victory in front of 7,215 at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Pitino’s team has won its first two conference road games after dropping the Big Ten opener at home against Michigan State in overtime Dec. 27.
The Gophers, who were 0-9 in conference road games last season, already have matched last year’s victory total for the entire Big Ten season.
“They’re believing,” Pitino said. “And that’s the most important thing. I can say things until I’m blue in the face. But they’re internally believing in each other, and that makes you a tough out in this league.”
Nate Mason, who had 31 points and 11 assists for the Gophers (14-2, 2-1 Big Ten) in the 91-82 overtime victory at Purdue, finished with eight of his 12 points Thursday in the second half, all on clutch free throws to seal the game down the stretch.
Bryant McIntosh’s three-pointer cut it to 66-64 with 13.2 seconds, but Mason hit eight consecutive free throws in the final 26.7 seconds. The junior guard shot 2-for-8 from the field, but Mason went 8-for-9 from the foul line and had seven assists and five rebounds.
“My team looked at me and was looking for a leader to step up,” Mason said. “So I took it in my own hands.”
Amir Coffey, a freshman from Hopkins, led the Gophers with 17 points in front of his mother and sister, Nia, who is a standout senior forward for Northwestern.
The Wildcats crowd heckled Coffey and chanted that they had the better player of the two siblings, but that just motivated him even more.
“I thought it was pretty funny,” he said. “It was something I was expecting.”
For the second consecutive game, the Gophers couldn’t miss to start and shot 55 percent in the first half. But the Wildcats (12-4, 1-2) nearly matched them and took a 39-35 halftime lead after a buzzer-beater by McIntosh, who scored 14 of his 21 points in the first half.
Minnesota went cold to open the second half, shooting 1-for-11 from the field to start and missing its first eight shots.
Northwestern, which hadn’t lost at home since falling to Michigan State last January, led 47-40 after Scottie Lindsey finished off a Minnesota turnover with a dunk with 13:45 left in the second half to ignite the crowd.
The Gophers suffered two losses to Northwestern last season by a combined 49 points, but they showed why they are a different team this year when faced with adversity.
Minnesota held off Northwestern’s comeback with the help of Reggie Lynch inside. Lynch had 10 of his 12 points in the second half. The 6-10 Edina native threw down an emphatic dunk to make it 59-53 with 5:44 left.
The Gophers closed the game with free throws, but their defense put them in position to steal the victory and silence the crowd.
They held Northwestern to only 29 percent shooting in the second half, including 1-for-15 from three-point range.
There were some questions about finishing games when the Gophers blew a 14-point second-half lead to lose in overtime to Michigan State in the Big Ten opener, but they’ve significantly grown up in a short time.
“It’s a team effort,” Mason said. “Everyone played a big part in this win [Thursday]. It shows how much depth we’ve got with this team, and talent. If we stay together, we can be a pretty good team.”