MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota had the ball with plenty of time for the winning shot. When DeAndre Mathieu’s drive and off-balance try from the lane fell short, Mo Walker grabbed the rebound in perfect position for the putback.
That rolled off the rim, too, and Northwestern’s arms were raised in victory – for the third straight time on the road, no less.
Drew Crawford scored 17 points and JerShon Cobb pitched in 15 points to lead the Wildcats to their fifth win in seven games, 55-54 over the Gophers on Saturday.
“We’re not going to outscore anybody, but I think this might be one of the toughest Northwestern basketball teams anybody’s ever seen,” said Tre Demps, who had 11 points to help the Wildcats (12-11 overall, 5-5 Big Ten) move into fourth place in the conference.
Long the pesky underdog of the league but the ignominious program that’s never played in the NCAA tournament, this team has been as dangerous over the past three weeks as ever.
“We’re not done yet. We really want more,” Demps said.
The Gophers (15-7, 4-5) forced Demps, whose 3-pointer with 54 seconds remaining put the Wildcats up 55-52, into an airball with 12 seconds left. But Mathieu, who scored nine points in the second half, and Walker, who scored 14 points in another impressive low-post performance, missed their chances right before the buzzer.
“Got a little bit lucky at the end there,” said Crawford, who has 67 points over the last three games.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino yelled for a foul on Mathieu, who fell to the floor as he let the ball fly. Pitino declined to comment on the non-call afterward. Walker didn’t speak to reporters at all, sobbing in front of his locker with his face buried in a towel.
“You never want your guys to cry, but certainly it’s great when they care,” Pitino said, adding, “That’s the first step certainly toward building a winning program. We move on. It’s only worth one. We’ve just got to continue to get healthy and just learn from these mistakes.”
Chris Collins, the other first-year Big Ten head coach, has also put some pieces in place for the Wildcats to enjoy sustained success. With wins at Indiana, Wisconsin and now Minnesota over the last two weeks, Northwestern has a three-game conference road winning streak for the first time since 1960, according to the Big Ten Network.
“Our guys were very poised. There was a calmness to them. They weren’t jittery. And I have three guys who want the ball down the stretch of games, with Demps and Crawford and Cobb,” Collins said. “That’s a nice luxury to have. They want the big shot.”
Austin Hollins had 13 points, six rebounds and three steals for the Gophers. His 3-pointer from the corner tied the game at 40, and his dunk made it 50-all. But his team finished 3 for 14 from behind the arc and 5 for 9 from the free-throw line to negate a 36-14 advantage in points in the paint.
“Can’t do that in this conference. Teams are really good. Everybody’s good. Anybody can be beat any day, and they proved it today,” Mathieu said.
After losing six nonconference contests – no other team in the league dropped more than four this season – the Wildcats have come to life despite entering the weekend last in the Big Ten in scoring, shooting and rebounding margin. Over their last five victories, the Wildcats have allowed an average of just 52 points, and that includes a double-overtime win over Purdue. The Gophers weren’t credited with a single fast-break point.
“They played pretty good defense. We just missed some cheap shots,” Hollins said.
The Gophers certainly felt the absence of leading scorer Andre Hollins again. Their junior shooting guard sat out for essentially the third straight game with a sprained left ankle, and after dominating Wisconsin here without him they had trouble defending the perimeter at Nebraska and with creating their own shots against Northwestern. Pitino said he’s doubtful Hollins will be ready in time to play at Purdue on Wednesday.
After matching his career high with 29 points on 8-for-12 shooting from 3-point range against Nebraska, Malik Smith went 1 for 9 from behind the arc to finish with seven points in this game. The Gophers, who lead the Big Ten in free-throw shooting, were only 16 for 25 from the line at Nebraska as well.
“The close ones always hurt. Especially at home,” center Elliott Eliason said.