Minnesota Gophers Keep March Madness Hopes Alive with Huge Win at the Barn vs Northwestern

pharrel payne
Matt Krohn-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Gophers needed their second-straight win on Saturday, in order to realistically keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. Sure, we all believe in miracles, but if they can’t beat a good, not great, Northwestern team at the Barn, it’s unlikely they’d have what it takes to make the type of late run necessary to reach 20+ wins on the season.

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We’ve mentioned this a lot already, but the Gophers are a much improved product of basketball this season. Games are competitive and fun to watch, not full of disappointment and frustration, like the past two years. For those of us who watch every game, no matter the quality, that’s worth something in and of itself. Still, morale victories don’t count in the win column and head coach Ben Johnson is trying to keep his job.

Minnesota Gophers come thru in must-win vs Northwestern

And… with their backs against the wall, the Gophers found a way to get the job done yet again, winning 75-66 in OT. As is usually the case with this team when they win, today’s victory was a team effort. All five starters scored in double figures and big plays were made down the stretch from Dawson Garcia, Pharrel Payne, Cam Christie and Elijah Hawkins.

But the deeper we get into the 2023-24 season, the more clear one thing becomes. Minnesota is a better team when Sophomore big man Pharrel Payne is on the floor. Saturday, he finished 7 of 8 from the field, totaling 14 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocks. But the 6-9, 255 pound Sophomore provides a presence, both on offense and defense, that cannot be fully measured on a stat sheet.

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His size and skill around the low block is something that a lot of power 5 college teams just cannot matchup with these days, given the focus on big men who prefer to shoot, rather than bang down low. Not Payne, who’s from Cottage Grove, MN. He knows his role and he plays it as well as any other “non-scoring” big man in the country.

The Gophers won the turnover (12-17) and assist (19-13) battles, which allowed them to overcome being outshot from 3, by a large margin both by percentage and threes made. Ben Johnson has some questions to answer about his late-game coaching decisions, though.

Ben Johnson’s near devastating late coaching decision

With 18 seconds remaining and Minnesota up three points, Hawkins fouled Northwestern’s best free throw shooter on purpose. Of course, fouling while up three points isn’t crazy, if time is nearly run off the clock. But with 18 seconds remaining, it allowed the Wildcats to make one free throw, then steal and inbound, before eventually tying the game and sending it to overtime.

Luckily for Ben, it will go down as an afterthought, being the Gophers won. But he needs to get better in those situations. Whatever he told Elijah to do was either dumb or not explained properly.

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NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Minnesota Gophers Pharrel Payne
Matt Krohn-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Nonetheless, his team pulled out a desperately needed dub and, in turn, kept their dreams of March dancing alive. Minnesota is now 14-7 and 5-5 in conference play. How big was today’s win, exactly? When the game started, they were 10th place in the Big Ten? By the time it was over, they jumped to 6th.

The Gophers next game is Tuesday, back at the barn, vs Michigan State, a team they stuck close with in East Lansing. Should they find a way to win that one, they’ll be right back in the NCAA Tournament mix.

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