Northwestern pulls away from Minnesota 75-65

Published 6:33 pm Thursday, March 10, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS — Michael Thompson just kept pumping his fist and making plays Thursday.

He never even bothered to peek at the scoreboard to see he was chasing Big Ten tournament history.

The Northwestern senior scored a tournament-record 35 points and Drew Crawford added 15, leading the eighth-seeded Wildcats to a 75-65 first-round victory over ninth-seeded Minnesota.

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“It doesn’t mean anything,” said Thompson, downplaying the significance of his achievement. “I’m just happy that my team came out and we got a win.”

That’s typical Thompson, who produced yet another memorable moment in a remarkable career.

The 5-foot-10 guard went 11 of 22 from the field and 5 of 12 from 3-point range, had four rebounds and four assists and moved into third-place on the Wildcats’ career scoring list. He also broke Brian Cardinal’s single-game scoring record of 33 points, set in 1999 when Cardinal’s Purdue team lost to Michigan.

And the fun-loving Thompson did all that with his characteristic smile and trademark toughness.

“Juice is our leader out there,” Crawford said. “He does an unbelievable job of leading, whether it’s passing the ball, scoring it or running the team.”

On Thursday, he did it all. The reward is a rematch in Friday’s quarterfinals with No. 1 Ohio State, this year’s regular-season league champ and the defending tournament champ. The Buckeyes won this season’s only other meeting, 58-57 at Evanston, Ill., on Jan. 29.

A win would put Northwestern in the Big Ten semifinals for the first time in the 14-year history of the conference tourney. If the Wildcats (18-12) are as efficient against Ohio State as they were against Minnesota, they could have a chance.

Northwestern committed only five turnovers and made nine 3-pointers, breaking its own Big Ten single-season record. The Wildcats have now hit 171 3s this season, one more than last year’s team.

But the big difference was defense.

Minnesota shot just 37.5 percent. Trevor Mbakwe finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds, his 19th double-double this season. Blake Hoffarber had 13 points and Ralph Sampson III added 12 — not nearly enough against the Wildcats’ long-range shooters.

The Gophers (17-14) have now lost 10 of 11 games, and coach Tubby Smith failed to win a game in a conference tournament for only the third time in 18 seasons.

“They played a better game than we played today,” Smith said. “They hit some shots and went on a couple more runs than we did.”

Still, it doesn’t appear the Gophers’ collapse, which occurred after point guard Al Nolen went down with a broken foot, will change Smith’s long-term plans.

Afterward, Smith said he and the university were working on a contract extension and that he anticipates staying at Minnesota — dispelling any notion that he would take another job during the offseason.

On the court, it was Thompson who dictated the conversation and the tempo.

He helped the Wildcats break to a 15-8 lead, and his third 3 of the game helped Northwestern take a 32-30 halftime edge.

In the second half, he was even better.

After Minnesota took a 44-42 lead on Mbakwe’s dunk with 12:53 to play, Thompson changed the whole complexion of the game.

Northwestern’s Alex Marcotullio knocked down a 3, Thompson then found a wide open Nick Fruendt for a 3, and then Thompson pulled up for a 7-foot jumper. Suddenly, Northwestern led 50-44.

By the time the 13-1 run had ended, with Marcotullio posting up for another layup, the Wildcats led 55-44.

Minnesota never recovered.

“We’ve been in just about every game,” Smith said. “We’ve defended well. We’ve just had some breakdowns, and experienced teams will take advantage of that.”

Northwestern certainly did.

The Wildcats went on another 6-0 run late to put the game away, leaving only one question over the final 4 minutes: Would Thompson set a new career high and break Cardinal’s record?

No problem for the fist-pumping guard.

“Mike has been playing at an extremely high level, not just the last couple games but like seven or eight games,” coach Bill Carmody said.

“As the captain and leader, you have to bring your team along. I think he’s done a terrific job, remarkable job in his own game and the way he’s played in just bringing some of these other guys along.”