Gophers drop fifth straight, fall to Northwestern at home
MINNEAPOLIS -- Aaron Falzon made sure that a bump in the road didn't turn into a disaster.
Falzon tied his career-high with 20 points and Tre Demps added 13 as Northwestern defeated Minnesota 77-52 on Saturday afternoon.
Joey van Zegeren added 11 points and Bryant McIntosh had 10 assists for the Wildcats (14-3, 2-2 in the Big Ten), who had lost two straight games after opening the season 13-1. After their past two seasons were derailed by extended losing streaks, the Wildcats knew they had to nip this one in the bud.
"My first year were 5-5 and we lost seven in a row," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. "Last year we win our first game and then we lose 10 in a row. We had a tough week last week against two really good teams, Maryland and Ohio State. This was a big game for us today to kind of test where we were at as a team."
The result was Northwestern's biggest victory ever at Minnesota's Williams Arena -- and the Gophers' fifth biggest loss ever at home.
Nate Mason scored 13 points and Bakary Konate added 12 for the Gophers (6-10, 0-4), who have lost eight of their last nine games overall.
"Until I think that our identity becomes defense and rebounds, we've got no shot because we're not a great offensive team," said Minnesota coach Richard Pitino, whose team shot 39 percent from the floor and was outrebounded 33-17. "I thought we actually were doing some good things, but until there's a personal individual commitment and team commitment to it, it's going to be really, really hard."
Falzon, a freshman forward, was 6 for 9 from the 3-point line. He hit two of them early in the second half as Northwestern quickly expanded a six-point halftime cushion and blew the game open.
The Gophers have been plagued by poor 3-point defense, and it came back to bite them again early. Falzon knocked down four 3-pointers in the game's first 11 minutes, keying a 15-2 run that put Northwestern on top 20-11.
"Everybody's more comfortable when there's no one in your face," Falzon said of his hot start. "When they leave you open and you hit one or two, it kind of gets you going. From there you're just playing basketball."
Minnesota entered the game ranked 296th in the nation in 3-point defense, allowing opponents to make 37.3 percent from beyond the arc. Northwestern made 11 of 25 3-point attempts (44 percent) and shot 56 percent overall from the floor.
Joey King, the Gophers' leading scorer, was held to three shots and three points on the day.
"Obviously we have to go back to the drawing board again," King said. "It's definitely frustrating. I'm just disappointed in myself. I'm disappointed with how things are going. We're just going to have to keep fighting."
Konate kept Minnesota in the game in the first half. The 6-foot-11 sophomore scored eight points on three dunks and a pair of free throws as the Gophers trailed just 32-26 at the break.
Minnesota: The Gophers have started consecutive seasons 0-4 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1929-30. Last year they lost their first five conference games and finished 6-12 in the Big Ten.
Northwestern: The Wildcats scored nine-straight points on dunks by van Zegeren. He closed the first half with back-to-back slams and drew a foul on one. He hit the free throw, then opened the second half with dunks on consecutive possessions. . Northwestern's largest margin of victory at Minnesota had been 22 points, in a 45-23 win in 1931.
Collins said that he empathizes with Pitino, whose Big Ten record dropped to 14-26 in his third year at Minnesota. "He's got a lot of young guys and I kind of know the feeling," Collins said. "You're trying to play a lot of young guys and get them to realize what it takes to play in this league.
"There's no exact science in getting through it. I will tell you, this is a program on the right track, even though they're struggling right now. In the next couple of years this is going to be a tough team to play."
After the game, a party of roughly 70 people gathered behind the Northwestern bench for a group photo. Front and center was Jim Petersen, who starred for the Gophers in the early 1980s before playing eight years in the NBA. But Petersen was wearing Northwestern purple. That's because the group was there to cheer for Petersen's stepson, Wildcats forward Sanjay Lumpkin, who grew up in suburban Minneapolis.
Minnesota visits Nebraska on Tuesday.
Northwestern hosts Wisconsin on Tuesday.