Northwestern fought hard tonight, and climbed all the way out of a 13 point second half hole, but Minnesota's Blake Hoffarber took over the game late and the 'Cats suffered a costly loss.
A big reason for the second half comeback was Bill Carmody switching to a 1-3-1 zone, and the zone was probably the most effective it's been all season, forcing a ton of turnovers and really keeping the Gophers off balance. Many of Minnesota's baskets in the second half came in transition or off out of bounds plays; in the half court against the zone the 'Cats were all over the place, led by Jeremy Nash at the top. He was only credited with 1 steal for the game, but his pressure caused a lot of bad passes, and for the game NU forced 17 turnovers, 11 in the second half. Unfortunately, Hoffarber got hot late and hit 4 threes in the final 7 minutes. He's the best shooter in the conference and is going to make shots, it's nearly impossible to play zone and not allow three point shots. I know it's frustrating but sometimes you have to just tip your cap to a guy, a couple of his shots were very high degree of difficulty, in particular the last one with the shot clock winding down and Nash running at him.
3-point shooting was also a big part of how NU got back in the game, in particular by John Shurna (4 for 9) and Michael Thompson (5 for 10). The 'Cats finished 12 for 29 on threes, and it was much needed as Minnesota did a fantastic job on interior defense, blocking 11 shots. Several of those were shots by Luka Mirkovic, who was tentative inside and had a very tough time scoring. Mirkovic did do a great job on the glass with a career high 14 rebounds, but what most fans will focus on was him not boxing out Hoffarber on a missed Gopher free throw with 10 seconds left and the 'Cats down 3. A costly mistake but it's tough to blame him too much as he had to be tired after playing 36 minutes.
Northwestern's offense was clicking early in the game, as they got out to a 21-16 lead after a 3 by Alex Marcotullio with about 8 minutes left in the half. However, the rest of the first half was an unmitigated disaster for the 'Cats, as they were outscored 17 to 4. While the offense did go cold, a huge reason for the Minnesota run was the inexplicably terrible decision by Bill Carmody to insert Nick Fruendt into the game. While Fruendt played only three minutes, he had one awful turnover where he dribbled the ball off his leg while trying to bring the ball up, and was directly responsible for another with a poor inbounds pass into the corner to Thompson, who had nowhere to go and ended up turning the ball over. On defense he was lost and got beat a couple of times, and when the 'Cats somehow managed to get the ball across half court he added nothing on offense. I have no clue why the hell he was in the game. Yes, Nash had picked up his second foul midway through the half, but Marcotullio was available and doing fine. He did force up one long three early in the shot clock, but he did hit a three and he was executing the offense fine and not getting abused either on defense or bringing the ball up. Marcotullio and Fruendt are both below average athletes, but Marcotullio has been a rotation guy all season and has game experience against teams with similar talent to Minnesota in important situations. Here's what I wrote about these two before the game:
If Alex Marcotullio orhave to handle the ball in the back court, that may force the Big Ten Network run a Parental Discretion Advised warning as the abuse those two will take won't be appropriate television for children under 13.
I was only half right, as Marcotullio did fine. But it did not take Albert Einstein to figure out that Fruendt couldn't handle a full court press from one of the best defensive teams in the country. Fruendt brings absolutely nothing to the table, and worse he has basically no game experience. So far this season, he's played 33 total minutes, and most of those came in garbage time. He did play 7 minutes last time out against Illinois, and in that time he had 0 points, 0 rebounds and 0 assists. He managed not to completely screw things up, but Illinois does not play anything approaching the kind of pressure defense that Minnesota plays. Just an awful move by Carmody, there was no need to take out Marcotullio and throw Fruendt into the fire. As it was happening I compared it to Grady Little leaving Pedro in against the Yankees, that was a bit over the top but not by too much.
It may seem like I'm overreacting, but in a tight game you cannot afford to give points away especially on the road, and with Fruendt on the court NU just got killed and fell into a large hole they couldn't fully recover from. I hate to pick on the kid as he's trying his best, but he is simply not a Big Ten player. In the Patriot or Ivy League maybe he could compete, but not in the Big Ten. Carmody's bench is very thin, yet his other bench players at least do one thing well. Marcotullio can shoot, Kyle Rowley provides defense and rebounding, and Mike Capocci provides athleticism. Fruendt does nothing well, and should never have been in the game.
This was just a crushing loss, as Northwestern played their hearts out yet still came up short. Shurna led NU with 19 points, Thompson had 15, and Drew Crawford added 11. They held their own on the boards against the much bigger and more athletic Gophers, and turned up their defensive intensity in the 2nd half, doing everything they could to scratch out a win. it just wasn't enough though, as the deficit proved too large to fully overcome. There's a good chance that this will be a loss we will look back on in mid March and think about what could have been. I really hope I'm wrong about that, but against a fellow bubble team to come that close and still lose is excruciating.
I'm certainly not giving up hope on the season, but Northwestern may face their toughest game of the season Saturday at Michigan State. The Spartans are far from a lock there, as they have had narrow escapes in each of their past 3 wins and appear a bit vulnerable despite their 8-0 conference record and #5 overall ranking. I saw a lot of their game tonight against Michigan and they struggled at times against a zone and turned the ball over a ton. Obviously it will take an outstanding effort for the 'Cats to pull that one out, but it can be done as they proved last season at the Breslin Center. I dunno, I may be talking myself into thinking that to ease the pain from tonight. Such an agonizing defeat, up there for me with the two blown leads at home last season. Let's try to forget this one and move on.