Big Ten Tournament, First Round:
Sampson, Westbrook push Gophers past Wildcats
For the second consecutive game, the Minnesota Golden Gophers had seen a 12-point second-half lead evaporate. Last Saturday's setback versus Michigan was turning into a repeat nightmare against Northwestern, and if Tubby Smith's team wanted to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive, a young and wobbly roster needed to find a steely resolve down the stretch.
Thankfully for the citizens of Tubbytown, Ralph Sampson III and Lawrence Westbrook answered the bell. The determined duo scored 9 points in a four-minute span late in the second half to propel the eighth-seeded Gophers past the ninth-seeded Wildcats, 66-53, in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
This victory--which was much closer than the final 13-point margin indicated--didn't just allow Minnesota to move to Friday's quarterfinals against top-seeded Michigan State; it prevented the Gophers from suffering the kind of loss that had the letters "N-I-T" written all over it.
In a crowded and bubble-filled conference, the first round of this year's Big Ten Tournament is more significant (and intriguing) than ever before. As a consequence of the league's quality depth--and accordingly even portfolios--the first round's winners will differentiate themselves from any losers. Minnesota, even more than seventh-seeded Michigan and sixth-seeded Penn State, needed to bag its opening game in Indy for two simple reasons: First, the Gophers lacked the quality wins of the Wolverines (Duke, UCLA and Purdue; Minnesota only had Louisville). Second, Tubby's troops didn't attain the 10-8 conference mark acquired by the Nittany Lions.
When Selection Sunday arrives, the Big Ten could experience a gold rush-level haul of eight teams in the Big Dance, but none of the league's bubble residents could afford to take a chance on First-Round Thursday, and Minnesota was the team with the smallest margin for error. Therefore, when the Gophers wasted a strong first half and scored just 5 points in a second-half stretch of nearly 11 minutes, they didn't just find themselves on the short side of the scoreboard; they were in danger of missing the NCAAs, courtesy of a big blown lead produced by frail nerves in major moments.
A brief bit of background is in order here. On March 7 in Minneapolis, the Gophers led Michigan, 51-39, with 13:20 left in regulation, but couldn't clamp down on defense. The Wolverines, behind hot shooting from a terrific trio--DeShawn Sims, Laval Lucas-Perry, and Manny Harris--caught and passed Minnesota on the way to a 67-64 win that placed the sons of the Twin Cities in a precarious position entering today's tilt with Northwestern. When the U of M registered just two made field goals from 16:09 of the second half until the 5:30 mark, what had been a 42-30 advantage turned into a 49-47 deficit. For the second straight time, a dozen points in the bank didn't mean very much for Minnesota. As Northwestern and its fan base began to believe that victory--and the survival of the Wildcats' own NCAA hopes--was possible, the unsettled Gophers had to wonder if their March Madness dream was about to die.
Enter Sampson and Westbrook, who rode to the rescue at a point of pronounced peril for their ballclub.
With Minnesota's offense completely at the mercy of Bill Carmody's well-devised defense, Sampson and Westbrook solved the puzzle provided by the purple-shirted 9 seed from Evanston. When down by that 49-47 score, it was Sampson who snapped Minnesota out of its extended offensive funk. An old-fashioned 3-point play gave the Gophers a 50-49 lead at the 5:18 mark, snapping a scoreless strech of more than five minutes and giving the eighth seed its third made field goal in 10:51 of clock time. A few minutes later, Sampson worked free for a dunk that enabled the Gophers to stretch their lead to seven points.
Wait, you say--how did the lead go from one point to seven? That's where Westbrook came into the picture.
As was the case in two spectacular late-game displays against Wisconsin, Westbrook demanded the ball, and then did something productive with the rock at a crucial stage of the proceedings. After Sampson's first big basket, the game stayed locked at 50-49 for a few extremely tense minutes. Whoever broke the ice and scored the next points stood to gain meaningful momentum as the race to the finish line intensified. Westbrook allowed Minnesota to become that team, as the guard's clutch basket and a pair of free throws gave the Gophers a 54-49 advantage.
Ralph Sampson III erased a deficit and put the finishing touches on this vital victory for the Gophers, but it was Lawrence Westbrook who prevented Northwestern from regaining a foothold in the final minutes of a stomach-churning slugfest. One would recommend that Minnesota not get dismantled by Michigan State (as was the case in a 76-47 Spartan win on Feb. 4 in East Lansing) in the quarterfinals, but it's likely that today's win over the NIT-bound Wildcats will enable the Gophers to return to the NCAA Tournament, as long as bids don't get stolen in other major conference tourneys.
A season hung in the balance today for the men of Minneapolis. Thankfully for the Golden Gophers, a serene center and a gritty guard found their manhood in a Conseco crucible.
By Matt Zemek BigTen-fans.com Minnesota Correspondent