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March 8, 2012

Death of a dream

Northwestern knew it had to beat Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament to have a shot at earning its first-even NCAA bid. But in what was perhaps a fitting end to the Wildcats' dream, they dropped a 75-68 overtime decision in a game that was in many ways a microcosm of their season.

Six times the Wildcats played in Big Ten games that were decided by two points or less or in overtime, and they lost all six of them. This time, Minnesota outscored Northwestern 14-7 in overtime to notch the win in a game that the Wildcats desperately needed to bolster their tournament resume.

While the Wildcats had been regarded by most experts to be one of the last four teams in the tournament before tipoff, the loss means that they will likely fall off the bubble in tomorrow's brackets.

The Wildcats' normally effective offense was the culprit this time, as it inexplicably left them down the stretch, when they needed it most. Over the last 9:45 of game action, they made exactly one field goal -- a JerShon Cobb layup with 3:11 left in overtime. In the extra period, when the pressure was at its highest, the Wildcats were just 1-of-6 from the floor, including three missed layups, and committed two turnovers.

With 45 seconds left in overtime, Northwestern called a timeout, trailing 71-68. Cobb promptly turned the ball over on the inbounds play. The Gophers, in turn, called a timeout, but they cashed in with a Rodney Williams dunk off their inbounds play, and that effectively put the game out of reach and drove the final nail in the Wildcats' coffin.

Cobb scored a career-high 24 points and collected a team-high eight rebounds to pace Northwestern (18-13, 8-11 Big Ten), while John Shurna added 21 points. The other five Wildcats who saw action finished with just 23 points on 5-of-29 shooting.

Drew Crawford came up with a game-high five steals but hit just 2-of-11 shots for eight points. Dave Sobolewski, too, had a rough outing offensively, missing all six of his shots and finishing with two points.

Andre Hollins led Minnesota (19-13, 7-12) with 25 points, while Williams (12 points), Austin Hollins (12) and Julian Welch (11) each scored in double figures. The Gophers also enjoyed a 41-24 edge in rebounding, including 13-5 on the offensive end.

Northwestern took a 61-57 lead after two Cobb free throws with 4:06 left, but the Gophers scored the last four points in regulation to force overtime. Minnesota also scored the last six points in the extra period, leaving Northwestern with an 0-3 record in overtime games this season.

Despite the offensive drought in the closing minutes, Northwestern stayed in the game with its free-throw shooting. The Wildcats hit 5-of-6 free throws in overtime and were 17-of-21 from the charity stripe for the game. Minnesota was just 6-of-10.



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