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Another big finish and feeling some Payne spark Gophers to overtime win

Gophers point guard Elijah Hawkins had nowhere to go with the basketball with a few seconds left before halftime Saturday, but the smallest player on the court made the biggest play of the first half.

The 5-11 Hawkins used a crossover dribble to gain separation and nailed a step-back three-pointer, falling to the floor. Just like that, the score was tied 27-27 to end the half.

It marked the first time in Big Ten play this season that the Gophers weren't trailing at halftime. That wasn't lost on their coach, Ben Johnson, after the Gophers pulled out a 75-66 overtime win against Northwestern at Williams Arena.

The Gophers (14-7, 5-5 Big Ten) won four of their first nine games in conference play after trailing at halftime in all of them. Halftime deficits aren't ideal, but they haven't been as detrimental as last season. The Gophers had a 1-19 overall record in those games during the 2022-23 season.

"The second halves that we've had this year have obviously been good," said Johnson, who will see whether that trend continues Tuesday night against visiting Michigan State. "They just know they're going to play well. I think that's just the bottom line. They know they're going to get stops. They know they're going to score."

Here are four things learned from the Gophers' victory Saturday:

Payne's protection

Midway through the second half, Hawkins drove the lane to draw defenders before dishing the ball to Pharrel Payne for a ferocious one-handed spike through the rim on Northwestern's Blake Preston.

The video of that dunk was shown to Payne after the game. His response was, "I need that clip."

That was arguably the best of Payne's team-best 21 dunks this season, but his biggest plays were on the defensive end. The 6-9 sophomore returned from a back injury Saturday to finish with 14 points and nine rebounds. Three of his four blocks were in the second half against the Wildcats.

Two blocks came in the last two minutes of the game, including a swat on Northwestern center Matthew Nicholson's dunk attempt after leaving his feet a second earlier.

Payne, who played 24 of the 25 minutes in the second half and overtime, provides rim protection essential to his team closing out games. He's too valuable to leave on the bench for long, especially when he's not in foul trouble.

The Gophers are 6-2 this season when he has two blocks or more in a game. He ranks fourth in Big Ten games with 2.0 blocks per game.

Shooting in the clutch

The Gophers probably wouldn't have beaten Northwestern if they weren't able to turn around their shooting woes that hampered them during league play.

They entered Saturday's game shooting 29.5% from three-point range and 64.6% on free throws, ranking 13th in Big Ten games in both categories.

In the first half, the Gophers shot just 3-for-5 on free throws. That wasn't going to move the needle much. They also opened the game 0-for-9 from three-point range, which contributed to them falling behind by 10 points.

Suddenly, though, the momentum changed for Johnson's team once shots dropped from three-point range. Back-to-back threes from Cam Christie and Hawkins tied the game at halftime.

Northwestern went 11-for-23 from three-point range in the game, including sinking six threes in the second half. Ryan Langborg's fourth three-pointer gave the Wildcats a 54-46 lead with less than five minutes left, but the Gophers showed they could answer from three and the foul line.

The Gophers, who were 16-for-21 on free throws Saturday, made their last six free throws in regulation. Christie, who scored 10 of his 15 points in the second half, nailed a three with 44 seconds left for a 59-58 lead.

Dawson Garcia scored eight of his team-high 20 points in overtime on five free throws and a critical three-pointer to put his team ahead 66-63. The Gophers shot 7-for-8 on free throws in the extra period.

Sign up for our Gophers Update newsletterHawkins' health

There seemed to be a brief sense of despair from the Gophers once Hawkins left the game early in the second half limping on Saturday. The fear was that he tweaked the same right ankle that caused him to miss the Michigan State game recently.

Hawkins is the fastest player on the court. How could the Gophers play up-tempo without him?

Northwestern extended its lead to nine points, but Christie answered with five consecutive points to keep his team within striking distance until Hawkins returned. A few minutes later, the Gophers were again pushing the pace and getting quality shots.

Mike Mitchell Jr., who had 10 points, and Christie were beneficiaries of Hawkins finding them open for big threes late in the second half. So was Payne for what was maybe the dunk of the season so far. And Garcia got himself going to lead his team to victory with a boost from Hawkins' leadership.

"I told him in the first half, 'We go as you go,' " Garcia said. "He's a dog and he's a great leader for us."

Overcoming slow start

A week between games had the Gophers a bit rusty and sluggish to open Saturday's game. They were down 27-17 in the first half before a 10-0 run helped them tie the score at the break. A pep talk from Johnson threatening to bench guys if he didn't see better focus and effort worked in the first half.

"I was on them because I thought our energy was bad," Johnson said. "We were just flat. Looked flat. Acted flat. Pouty. Moody. So, in a timeout, I just said: 'This is not going to work. If we're going to win this game, our attitude, energy and fight [have to change] because that's not us.' "