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January 24, 2013

NU's 1-3-1 zone sparks upset

EVANSTON-Reggie Hearn fought off the contact, laid the ball up off the glass, and let out a yell in the direction of the student section.

"I'm excited," the senior guard said of the moment. "I'm pumping up the crowd."

After Northwestern hung on Wednesday to beat the No.12 Minnesota Golden Gophers 55-48, who can really blame him?

Just minutes earlier, it looked as though the Wildcats were headed toward another loss. Minnesota had extended its lead to seven points. With the dominance the Golden Gophers were showing on the offensive and defensive glass, the Cats did not seem to have much of a chance.

Despite shooting only 29 percent in the first half, Minnesota built a lead by playing solid, physical basketball. The Gophers blocked four shots, pulled down 26 rebounds and fouled the Wildcats 11 times before the first half was over.

On several possessions, Minnesota earned "fourth-chance" buckets after corralling multiple offensive boards. Until the first media time out of the second half, the Cats had no answer.

But then it all changed.

On Minnesota's first true offensive possession after the half, Northwestern set up in its 1-3-1 defense with senior guard Alex Marcotullio providing the pressure. The decision by head coach Bill Carmody to go to the zone provided immediate dividends.

Northwestern converted a Minnesota turnover into two points on the very first possession, and it did not let up from there. Though Minnesota would push its cushion back to five points after the initial Northwestern surge, the Golden Gophers' lead would not last.

The Wildcats went on a 13-2 tear that took a little more than six minutes and was part of a larger 18-4 run that gave Northwestern the separation it needed to pull out a win.

"That zone made the difference," Carmody said. "We got out and we just felt confident that we could stop them. That helps your offense."

The game was blown open with just under 12 minutes to play, when Hearn got his second "and-1" call in two possessions. Twice, Marcotullio stole the ball and fed it to Dave Sobolewski, who hit a streaking Hearn in the middle of the lane for two points and the free throw. The only difference between the two plays was the ending, as Hearn knocked down the free throw the second time around.

Though the Gophers would take the lead once more, the game was swinging in Northwestern's favor.

"That was a big momentum shift for us," Hearn said. "I think they were frustrated with the 1-3-1. They couldn't seem to figure it out."

Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith agreed with Hearn's assessment, noting the difficulty in preparing for the Wildcats' zone.

"We obviously did a poor job of practicing and preparing for it," Smith said. "We're just unable to hang onto the ball."

Before switching to the zone, Northwestern had just 27 points. Once the Cats switched to a 1-3-1, the Gophers turned the ball over six times in a 10- minute span. The increased defensive pressure manufactured fast-break opportunities and easy baskets, enabling Northwestern to double its score in less than 15 minutes.

After turning the ball over just five times in the first half, Minnesota coughed it up 10 times in the second.

"The 1-3-1 has always been a nice change of pace for us," Hearn said, "and so far in Big Ten play it's really been good to us."

And after Wednesday's win, the Wildcats' second over a ranked team in a week, it's a change of pace Northwestern fans may see more often.



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