Northwestern had one goal this season – earning the school’s first NCAA tournament bid.
The Wildcats can’t do anything more to help themselves now.
When their best shooters went cold at the wrong time Thursday, Northwestern failed to wrap up a key first-round Big Ten tournament victory and wound up falling 75-68 in overtime to 10th-seeded Minnesota – a loss that could send the Wildcats back to the NIT.
All they can do now is wait for the other conference tournaments to play out and hope everything breaks their way.
”It’s just every emotion you think, the staff and the players. It’s beyond frustrating,” Wildcats coach Bill Carmody said. ”It’s just very hard right now. I don’t know what else to say, you know, I thought the effort was there tonight, it just didn’t work out. The ball didn’t bounce right for us.”
No, it didn’t have to be like this.
The Wildcats (18-13) lost by eight in overtime against Michigan on Feb. 21, and lost 75-73 on Feb. 29 against Ohio State. Winning either game against those ranked teams would have solidified their position with the selection committee.
But with one win or possibly two in Indianapolis, Northwestern looked like it might still sneak in.
The problem: Northwestern made only one basket over the final 9:53, missed an opportunity to win it with a buzzer-beater at the end of regulation and got outscored 6-0 in the final minute of overtime – a crushing blow that caused so much heartache Northwestern’s players begrudgingly lined up to shake hands with Minnesota’s players after the clock hit all zeroes.
”This is probably the closest, as far as the bubble goes, we’ve stayed on the bubble here the entire team,” John Shurna said after scoring 21 points. ”It was a game we wanted to win, it wouldn’t have put us in but a loss doesn’t mean we’re out.”
JerShon Cobb finished with a career-high 24 points to lead Northwestern, which went 3-3 over its final six games and will anxiously await Sunday night’s tourney draw to see if it has done enough to make the 68-team field.
Minnesota (19-13), meanwhile, will continue to try and play its way into the draw.
Next up is No. 10 Michigan, one of three teams to share the league’s regular-season crown. A victory in Friday’s quarterfinal round would give coach Tubby Smith win No. 100 since coming to Minneapolis, and could revitalize Smith’s magical postseason touch. He’s now 35-14 all-time in conference tourneys and 7-4 in Big Ten play.
If the Golden Gophers continue playing the way they did on Thursday, an upset is certainly possible.
Minnesota was led by freshman Andre Hollins, who scored 11 points in the first seven minutes and finished with a career-high 25. Austin Hollins and Rodney Williams each finished with 12 points.
But it was the closing stretch that impressed Smith most.
Minnesota’s suffocating defense didn’t give up any open looks, the Gophers matched the Wildcats’ will and they eventually forced Northwestern into a bevy of costly mistakes.
In Smith’s world, it doesn’t get better than that.
”We changed our defense,” Smith said. ”Against the zone, they were just carving us up and lighting us up from outside, so we went away from the zone in the second half and primarily played man-to-man.”
Even without the injured Ralph Sampson III (back), Minnesota was just good enough to take advantage.
After the teams combined to make 16 3-pointers, out of 25 first-half baskets, both teams wanted to do more damage inside in the second half.
That turned the game into a virtual draw until Cobb scored four straight points to give Northwestern a 61-57 lead with 4:06 to play in regulation.
It was all Gophers after that. They tied the score at 61 when Andre Hollins and drove in for a layup with 1:02 to play in regulation, and after Minnesota failed to take the lead on a midrange jumper with about 3 seconds left, Northwestern’s Dave Sobolewski rushed the buzzer-beater that bounded off the back of the rim to force overtime.
”It felt great that we finally came out and executed down the stretch because that’s where we struggled early in the year,” Andre Hollins said. ”It just felt great that we had that opportunity.”
Northwestern was still within 69-68 with 1:22 to go, but Minnesota got a layup from Andre Hollins, a dunk from Rodney Williams and two free throws from Chip Armelin to seal it and put the Wildcats in waiting mode.
”We got to win, that’s the deal. You have to win,” Carmody said. ”We had this chance tonight and we didn’t take it.”