Gophers take down Badgers
Westbrook snapped to life with 15 of Minnesota’s final 18 points, all of his scoring for the night and all in the final nine minutes, and the Gophers propped up their sagging NCAA tournament resume with a 51-46 victory over the Badgers on Wednesday.
“I saw the way the game was going,” Westbrook said, “and I know I can take over any game any time. So I just put it on myself.”
Damian Johnson added 11 points for Minnesota (21-8, 9-8 Big Ten), which finishes the regular season on Saturday at Williams Arena against Michigan. It’s a good place to be for the Gophers, who were 4-7 between wins over Wisconsin—first on Jan. 15.
“In other places, we may have folded,” coach Tubby Smith said. “We stayed in the game mentally and emotionally; didn’t panic.”
Marcus Landry’s 18 points weren’t enough for the Badgers (18-11, 9-8), who blew another late lead—the story of their January until getting back on track last month. They missed their final six field goals after building a 46-41 edge and lost for the eighth time this season when holding a lead in the final six minutes.
“I don’t know if we had anything left, to be honest with you,” coach Bo Ryan said.
On consecutive possessions, Westbrook muscled in driving layups in the typical traffic the Badgers create around the basket. Then he sank a pair of free throws with 29 seconds remaining. The Gophers gained possession after a frantic set by Wisconsin resulted in a pair of missed shots and eventually a turnover on the ensuing loose ball.
Westbrook made two more free throws, the Badgers’ Tim Jarmusz threw a pass that sailed past Trevon Hughes and out of bounds in their backcourt, and Westbrook marched back to the line to swish two more foul shots. He was 7-for-7 from the line and is 79-for-91 this season —second-best in the conference.
“He’s determined. He’s like that,” said Smith, who smiled as he compared the junior to a pit bull. “When he’s feeling it like that, he’s hard to stop.”
Most of the game was ugly: On one second-half possession by Wisconsin there were no shots—and four fouls. Football coach Tim Brewster was watching from a front-row seat, a fitting observer given all the banging and clanging these rivals—facing each other for the 187th time—produced.
The Badgers brought the Big Ten’s best ballhandling into the game, a conference-low 10.3 turnovers per game that also ranked fifth in the country, but they had eight turnovers and stumbled to a season-low 16 points in the first half. The Gophers had them well-guarded, smartly sagging in the lane to double-team just about anyone who tried to drive.
But they still haven’t figured out this season how to work a half-court offense, and their seven-point halftime lead quickly dwindled to two on Jon Leuer’s second swished 3-pointer of the night with 17:10 remaining.
Landry knocked down a three-pointer to pull the Badgers to their first tie, 33-all, and his layup off a perfect feed from Hughes gave them their first lead at 39-38 with 5:55 left. He soared to the basket from the middle of the lane and tipped in a miss by Hughes to make it 41-38 Wisconsin on the next possession.
But Westbrook, the Gophers’ leading scorer who was held to six points or less in four of the last six games, took over from there. Smith trotted out yet another starting lineup, bringing struggling sophomore point guard Al Nolen off the bench after freshman Devoe Joseph and inserting Blake Hoffarber for Westbrook at the shooting guard spot.
Westbrook, who played only 18 minutes, initially shrugged off the temporary demotion. Then he acknowledged it made him angry.
“I just used it for energy and fire,” he said.
Which is what the Badgers, after a determined comeback from an 11-point first-half deficit, were lacking on the final few possessions. Landry wasn’t buying the out-of-gas theory, though.
“Nope, not at all. That’s not an excuse I’m willing to have on my plate,” he said. “We let some things get away from us down the stretch that cost us.”
Wisconsin and Minnesota began the week among six teams who could finish anywhere from fourth place to ninth, with a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament and those precious few spots in the field of 65 dangling in front of the pack. That 78-74 overtime victory in Madison by the Gophers, who rallied that January night from a 14-point hole, doesn’t look as good given their recent struggles.
But this was a big lift.
“It just seemed like we were just overanxious and we were just trying to rush everything,” Johnson said, reflecting on the last several weeks. “I think we were just more calm and more poised tonight.”